For older city residents, some D.C. government programs positively purr. Fueled with money and attention, they provide thousands of seniors with some of the most comprehensive services in the nation, feeding them, entertaining them, helping them get where they need to go.

Yet for thousands of other seniors -- many in desperate need of help -- the engine of government sputters, making them wait for housing, home-care support or home-delivered meals.

This is the paradox the next mayor will inherit and senior citizens will continue to live with: City programs for the aging are both a showcase and a case of not enough program to meet the need.

Interviews, site visits and a review of city records during the past three months have revealed these problem areas in the delivery of services to the District's older residents:

Services reach only one of four senior citizens.

The D.C. Office on Aging estimates that its network served about 26 percent of city residents 60 and older last year. A person need receive only one service, such as one meal during the year, to be counted in that total, though many receive several services throughout the year.

Participation in some programs has dropped sharply.

The city serves lunches to 4,350 senior citizens each weekday at its free meals centers. But in 1988, it served 5,400 seniors.

That 19 percent decline reflects a national trend, which some attribute to an unwillingness by younger senior citizens to join older, more frail elderly who rely on group meals. But in the District, there may also be a link to increased street violence. Seniors living in high-crime areas are afraid to leave home and risk getting hurt en route to a group meal. Nursing home care is deficient.

The Washington Center for Aging Services, a service of the Office on Aging, and D.C. Village, operated by the city's Department of Human Services, are the worst nursing homes in the region, based on the number of deficiencies in recent inspections by the federal Health Care Financing Administration.

In its latest annual report, the federal agency said the Washington Center had 32 deficiencies, second only to D.C. Village, which had 39. The report said both nursing homes failed to follow infection control procedures or administer drugs as doctors ordered. Meals are unavailable for many homebound senior citizens.

More than 100 homebound elderly are on the waiting list for home-delivered meals, but they cannot be served until funding increases. Transportation services for senior citizens are inadequate.

The Washington Elderly and Handicapped Transportation Service, financed by the Office on Aging, operates 40 buses and vans to help low-income seniors keep medical and business appointments but has no escort service to help the riders get from home to van. Lengthy waiting lists of senior citizens have built up for city-sponsored home health care services and affordable housing.

Local agencies serving senior citizens say the shortage of home health care workers reached a crisis last year when 300 people were on the waiting list for home care services. After the city raised the pay for home care employees, the pool of workers increased and the waiting list dropped to less than 25. But agency officials expect the waiting list to go back up because of the growing number of frail elderly.

The waiting list of seniors in need of safe, affordable housing is longer and in some ways more pressing. While the mayor says that "our waiting list over at Public and Assisted Housing is zero," that department says there are about 510 senior citizens on the list for subsidized housing. Spokesman Oliver Cromwell said the waiting time is about six months.

Social workers say that many senior citizens actually wait much longer for subsidized housing. Meanwhile, they say, some seniors are prisoners in their own homes, fearful of stepping into the crime-infested streets and unable to move to safer quarters because of the housing crunch.

"When we call {the city Department of} Housing, they say they will place the senior sometime soon," said Myrtle Yearwood, the senior program coordinator for Barney Neighborhood House, an agency that provides senior services in Wards 1 and 4. "But it has been nearly a year since someone from our service area was placed, and we have 115 senior citizens waiting."

The wait is expected to diminish, but not disappear, once the 215-unit Greenleaf housing project for seniors opens later this summer.

While the city has been unable to fill such gaps, the D.C. Office on Aging has served as an advocate for older residents, as well as a sponsor of services for them, and has helped Mayor Marion Barry maintain close ties to city seniors who view him -- correctly -- as an important benefactor.

Today, with a pocketbook of more than $18 million, including nearly $14 million in city money and about $4.4 million in federal funds, the D.C. Office on Aging oversees a 42-agency network of 89 group meal sites, 16 senior centers, specialized programs such as adult day care and a calendar full of special events.

E. Veronica Pace, director of the Office on Aging, said 95 percent of those receiving services from her office are low-income. "We are committed to enhancing the quality of life of older District residents," she said.

And D.C. residents generally appreciate the city's effort to provide services for seniors.

In a poll conducted in May by The Washington Post, 37 percent of the respondents who said they knew something about the services provided for senior citizens rated the city programs as excellent or good and 14 percent rated them as not-so-good or poor.

Those who had actual experience with such services rated them even higher: Seventy percent said good or excellent.

Mary P. Gamble, an 80-year-old widow, can spend much of her day courtesy of the D.C. government.

Gamble, who lives on Social Security in an Edgewood apartment project, can walk next door to the city-funded Harvest House Senior Center on Rhode Island Avenue NE. There, she joins 25 senior citizens in the center's cheerfully furnished activity room in time for Scripture reading and prayer.

"Afterward, we do exercises," said Gamble. "Then we do art. We make things. Dogs of yarn. Clowns. Pillows."

If she's hungry, she can eat a noontime meal for free.

If she's in the mood for an outing, she can board the Harvest House bus for one of the occasional staff-led activities. Last year, she was at Elderfest, a city-sponsored festival for seniors. "I like the music and the people, and there are a lot of little free things you can get as you walk along the tables," Gamble said.

The city helps others stay mobile: Rosa M. Rutledge, 78, of Southeast, said the city's discount taxi service enables her to live independently now that she no longer drives. "I buy my coupons every month and the cab comes to my house and delivers me to where I want to go," she said.

The city also offers the van service, but the lack of an escort between home and the van is a serious barrier for someone such as Rosa Goins, 80, who has arthritis in her hips and is confined to a wheelchair.

When the transportation service van arrived one rainy morning in May to pick up Goins at the sprawling Potomac Gardens housing project in Southeast, she had to wheel herself out of her upstairs unit, down the hall into an elevator and then out to the front of the building.

Helping people such as Goins remain in their homes and avoid costly institutionalization is one of the priorities of the Office on Aging, Pace says.

That is why her agency instituted a home support program for older residents to augment what was already available through other city agencies, such as the Department of Human Services. But even with that additional program, home health care is among the most critical problems facing senior citizens.

Professionals who are part of the national aging network say that Pace and her office perform an important service for older residents and for the mayor.

In putting together a system of services for senior citizens, "Pace probably has helped Marion Barry more than most of his other staff," said Jonathan Linkous, director of the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging, a Washington-based professional group.

"You praise the bridge that carries you across," Mary Gamble said of the mayor. "Maybe there are some things he didn't do right, but we still think a lot of him as mayor because he has done a lot for seniors."

Barry would certainly agree with the latter part of Gamble's analysis. "Senior citizen services I give A-plus, A-plus, plus, plus," Barry said in an interview. "That's why I have a lot of support among seniors."

The literature distributed by Pace's staff of 35 employees and her aging-service network of about 600 workers typically includes prominent photographs of Barry and statistics illustrating the tenfold growth in city funding for the elderly under the Barry administration. The material does not reflect the decline in participation in such programs as group meals.

In her public appearances, Pace routinely thanks the mayor for his support. And the events sponsored by her office usually feature a mayoral visit, no matter how large or small the gathering.

On a day in May when Barry had to appear in court in the morning and preside at an afternoon news conference, he squeezed in a visit with 15 Chinese seniors in the basement of a downtown community center. He delivered a greeting in Chinese and talked about his interest in services for older residents.

That interest can be traced to the mid-1970s, when the federal government, responding to the increased size and political strength of the nation's seniors, began providing communities with money to finance free meals and other services.

In the District of Columbia, then-council members Polly Shackleton and Marion Barry decided to push for a new city agency that could funnel the flood of federal money, along with available local funds, into senior citizen programs.

The result of their collaboration was the law establishing the Office on Aging in 1975.

"Our seniors were neglected for a long time by the federal government, by everybody I've seen around," Barry said. "And I figured this is an area where I could make an impact and build a program thrust that would be difficult for any mayor to turn around."

...on services for the elderly

Q. Based on what you know or have heard, how would you rate the quality of District programs for the elderly: excellent, good, not so good, poor, or don't you know enough about them to say?

EXCELLENT/GOOD...............37%

NET NET NOT SO GOOD/POOR.....13%

NOTE: Figures are based on a Washington Post telephone survey of 1,505 adult residents of the District Of Columbia conducted May 17-21. Margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3 percentage points.

SOURCE: Washington Post Poll

...On The Elderly In The District

About one of every six residents in the District of Columbia is 60 or older.

Sixty-one percent of the elderly in the District are women.

The life expectancy of District blacks is almost eight years shorter than District whites. Blacks can expect to live to age 67; whites average 74.8 years.

The projected growth in th elderly population is expected to raise the median age of the city population from 33 in 1987 to 42 by 2030.

The average age of those receiving services from the city's Office on Aging is 73. More than two-thirds of them are women. Sixty-two percent live in rented housing, and 30 percent own their homes.

Ward 3 has the largest concentration of the elderly in the District, about 21,000 people, or about 27. 2 percent of the total ward population.

The rest of the city:

Ward 1.......13,000 elderly.. or 17 percent

Ward 4.......13,700.......... or 16.7 percent

Ward 5.......17,509.......... or 21.7 percent

Ward 6.......15,700.......... or 19.4 percent

Ward 7.......11,300.......... or 15.2 percent

Ward 8....... 5,800.......... or 7.7 percent