Her gray hair brushed back smoothly from her face and her blouse tucked neatly into her skirt, Lea Shapiro settled down with several other senior citizens at the round lunch table in the Langley Park Senior Center for a hot meal featuring beef stroganoff and noodles.

Shapiro, 70, often walks two blocks from her home to the center, located in Prince George's County near the District line, for the morning activities: sewing, dancing, arts and crafts, field trips to local attractions such as the Wheaton trolley museum, and conversation with friends around the lunch table.

"For me, it's therapy," Shapiro said. "It's getting out of the house, sitting with other people, talking to people."

Shapiro's meal and her involvement in the center activities offer a window into the world of social services initiated and financed through the Older Americans Act, the 1965 Great Society legislation that revolutionized national policies on aging and became the major vehicle for services to the nation's elderly, regardless of their income.

The Older Americans Act is up for reauthorization by Congress at a time when lawmakers are trying to balance the needs of a growing elderly population against scarce public funding. Although the program has considerable bipartisan support and is expected to be approved in the fall with only minor modifications, controversy has arisen over how best to target the funding.

These community services for the elderly are regarded as one of two crucial elements to the long-term care of the elderly, the other being nursing homes. Community services such as nutrition, transportation and housekeeping assistance are crucial to enabling the elderly to remain in their homes for a longer period of time, delaying the need for costly institutionalization, officials said.

"The wisdom of the Older Americans Act in funding these kind of activities {is that they} serve as a way of keeping people from being isolated," said Sue Ward, director of the Prince George's County Department of Aging Services and Programs. Prince George's serves meals to an average of 550 people each day at 18 congregate sites, including the one in Langley Park.

"We call our program 'Food and Fellowship,' and while we are well aware of the importance of good nutrition, the human contact is critical," Ward said.

"It is boring to eat alone, to cook alone, to cook for one person, and many elderly people do not do that," Ward said. "This is an opportunity for them to get together with other people. This is a preventative thing, to keep people active and happy."

In Congress, a key question being debated is whether the social services and meals should be more carefully targeted to low-income minorities and the frail elderly who most need the program. The program is open to people 60 or older, regardless of income, although it tries to aim its services to needy groups. Another policy battleground involves the extent to which the network of local and state officials on aging should be allowed to lobby in behalf of the elderly and try to affect the outcome of elections, legislation and budgeting.

Compared with other federal programs for senior citizens, such as the $240 billion Social Security budget, the $1.2 billion appropriated for the Older Americans Act this year is a relatively minor sum.

But the importance of the Older Americans Act in setting the national tone of concern for the elderly and in defining and implementing national aging policy through a network of more than 600 state and local agencies on aging far outstrips the size of the appropriation, federal officials agree.

"The Older Americans Act for the past 22 years has been the cornerstone of our nation's developing policy of providing social services to maintain the independence of some 9 million elderly in the nation," said Rep. Mario Biaggi (D-N.Y.), one of the act's most ardent supporters.

The law provides federal funds for a range of social services, including subsidized community service jobs for low-income elderly. But the most visible and costly of the law's services is the nutrition program.

Last year, more than $500 million in federal funds was funneled into the network to help pay for 225 million meals for older people. In the Washington area, local offices on aging use federal funds, supplemented with local money, to serve hot meals to about 5,400 elderly people each day at 156 nutrition sites in adult day care centers, churches, community centers and senior centers scattered through the District, Northern Virginia and suburban Maryland. The District also serves meals to the elderly on weekends.

The cost for the Washington area meal program in fiscal 1986 was $5.3 million. Federal and state funds provided $3.2 million, local agencies kicked in $1.6 million and participants voluntarily contributed $493,000.

Local aging offices also provide meals to more than 2,000 homebound, frail elderly people. This program is coordinated with the privately operated, nonprofit Meals on Wheels program, which delivers food to a range of age groups, including those who are handicapped and those recently released from the hospital.

Ward said she knows from her own experience in the mid-1970s as a volunteer delivering meals to isolated elderly people what a difference the meal programs can make.

"I was home-delivering meals to the elderly in a rural part of the county where there was no suitable site for a congregate meal center, because there was no site with indoor plumbing," Ward said. "And I remember this one woman. I knocked and took the meal in to her. After a couple of weeks, she would amble out to get her meal, and after a month she was out in the yard picking up bricks and working in her yard."

Ward said the social benefits are even greater at the congregate centers where people can tap into a range of programs, which may include blood pressure checks by the health department, assistance with taxes and food stamp applications, counseling, a range of educational classes and information and referral to in-home services, such as housekeeping help.

Ward said she was pleased this year when Congress rejected a proposal by the Reagan administration to raise the eligibility age from 60 to 70. She said she also approved of congressional opposition to an income test to limit participation in the program.

"We certainly target our programs and try to serve those most in need, but if this gets into income testing, it would dramatically alter the philosophy of the law and it would completely change the nature of the program," Ward said.

Ward cautioned that "if we don't offer some of these activities to keep people independent, so that people with pride can attend and participate, then we will end up serving them in nursing homes and other institutions."

Even without the income requirements, agencies for the elderly have trouble conveying the fact that they are not poverty programs, Ward said.

"People who could really benefit are sometimes reluctant to participate because they feel this is a government program for the poor," she said. "They don't want to be on the dole, and they resist participating because they think it might represent being on the dole."

To reach the elderly with economic and social needs, Ward said, the department has located services in neighborhoods of high need and conducted aggressive outreach programs.

At Langley Park Senior Center, located in a modest, racially mixed neighborhood, the program has grown from 20 participants to more than 100 since it started 10 years ago, according to Lea Shapiro.

The scene last Wednesday featured more than a dozen senior citizens, lined up in the main room like a drill squad, trying to follow the lead of dancer Fred Roper, 86, all swaying to the beat of the music and the sound of their own laughter.

In an adjacent room, Peggy Gibson directed the crocheting and knitting activities.

The lounge area drew a constant stream of people come to fill their Styrofoam cups with coffee and exchange pleasantries. On hand to keep the program moving were center coordinator Dorothy Daggett, nutrition supervisor Terescitta Rush and registered dietitian Cathy Stasny.

Shapiro, who described herself as a retired homemaker with three children and five grandchildren, has lived in Langley Park for about 30 years with her husband Marty, 75, a retired grocery store produce manager and buyer.

"I sit around home, even with my husband here, and I think if I go down to the center, I can meet people, have lunch with them, talk to them," Shapiro said. "If I didn't go, I would be lonely and depressed."