An elderly widow in Wisconsin wants to move into a nursing home but can't, because her life's savings are the equity in her home and she cannot sell it.

An unemployed Detroit autoworker found a new job nearly 100 miles away from where he lives and now commutes the distance each day because he couldn't find a buyer for his house and couldn't afford to maintain two homes.

A management consultant in the District is expecting to be promoted with a transfer to Houston but may have to turn the job down because no one would want to buy her condominium now--it went into foreclosure, and the lender isn't keeping it up properly, she says.

In South Dakota, high-energy coal companies are looking for workers and have advertised for them in the East, but the companies say that even with skyrocketing unemployment rates nationwide they can't get help--because people say they can't afford to move.

Mobility: It's been an underlying assumption in the American success story--both that of individual Americans and of America itself. But, for now, we have less of it.

Record-high interest rates have put the brakes on mobility. High interest makes it cost more to buy less in a home, and many people are deciding they will stay where they are rather than pay that extra cost. Others feel they have no choice--that they cannot sell their own homes even if they would be willing to pay more to buy someone else's.

This has resulted in the current housing depression and has had strong detrimental effects on related industries, such as moving companies.

"People . . . used to move to go to a better house or schools or because they don't like the way the neighborhoods are going--that's not happening," said John Nucci, Washington regional manager of Bekins Movers, which along with other moving companies has seen its business decline because of the slump. Buyers are "not moving up to better houses the way they used to," Nucci added. "In some cases, they are moving down."

Involuntary moves--the transfers that have been an intrinsic part of an upwardly mobile executive's climb to the top of a corporate ladder--have slowed, as well. For one thing, businesses are encountering more resistance from their employes to being transfered since it is more difficult for them to buy homes of equal value in new locations.

The real estate market is now listed as the No. 1 concern of employes faced with transfers, according to Cris Collie, executive vice president of the Employee Relocation Council in Washington. In 1978, the top concern was the undesirability of the new location itself, he said.

Corporations have responded by making substantial contributions to homebuyers as part of increasingly generous relocation packages, according to nationwide relocation services. About 80 percent of the Fortune 500 now deeply subsidize their employe's new interest rates when they are transferred, at an average cost now of about $8,000 to $10,000 per employe, bringing the total price of relocation to about $30,000 per worker, Collie said.

This high cost also has affected moves: businesses are slowing their employe transfers and are hiring more people locally wherever they are needed, relocation firm statistics show.

A recent attitude survey by Market Opinion Research for the National Forest Products Association concluded that about one-third of all Americans would move in 1982 if they could but fewer than 3 million are actively considering buying a home and have the money to do so. Of those likely to move now, most are young renters, the researchers said.

Of those surveyed, 11 percent said they are "likely" to move and another 23 percent said they would "possibly" move, but 45 percent of the former group and 60 percent of the latter said moving would be difficult for them in 1982 because of cost.

"High interest rates freeze a mobile society and shake confidence in the future," the researchers conclude. "Clearly, members of the public recognize on a personal level how high interest rates have constrained their ability to purchase their first home or upgrade their current home when and if they so desire."

Hampered mobility can result in social problems and political changes, as well, some experts say.

"There is a strong potential for political impact based on the dissatisfaction Americans feel because of their inability to obtain the kind of homes they desire and the constraints imposed by high interest rates on the homeownership goal of most Americans," the Market Opinion Research analysis said. "Congressional candidates who advocate promoting homeownership and reducing interest rates to further that end may fnid that position politically potent."

Close to 80 percent of those surveyed said fewer Americans will be able to afford a home in the future, and more than one-third believe they will never be able to own the kind of home they want.

The survey was cited by Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), chairman of the Senate Banking subcommittee on Housing, as an indication of the problems he hoped to address with a bill for the federal government to subsidize mortgage interest rates for moderate-income homebuyers. The legislation has strong bipartisan backing in the Senate, where it has been approved by the Banking Committee, but is opposed by the administration because of its $1-billion-a-year initial cost.

But while economics have substantially reduced mobility today, there is some evidence that young people now may not have the wanderlust of previous generations.

A survey by Yankelovich, Skelly & White of New York showed a change of attitude among younger people that suggests they want to stay in one place longer. This means they are thinking of homeownership at an earlier age but that they would be less likely to move in the future.

"Even if we had a better housing market, we still would be picking up a change in attitude," said Yankelovich Vice President Ann Clurman. "The mobility rate is going to slow down" further because of this for the next few years, she said.

So there is a positive side to the current situation. Those who do not want to move may find it easier to stay put, because their employers are not as anxious to transfer them as in the past.

"It might be the best of both worlds for employes," said Collie of the Employee Relocation Council. "Those that are anxious to move on and up will be able to, but the employe that wants to stay where he is probably will be able to do that, also."

Those that do want to move but do not have an employer paying the freight are having a tougher time of it, however, and are having to find new ways of dealing with the problems of buying and selling homes cross-country or cross-county.

Regina Frank, president of the Relocation Information Center in Bethesda, said the first--and perhaps the greatest--hurdle is emotional:

"It's funny. People who have made the decision, 'I'm going to change my life and move,'--they move."