Persuading an elderly widow to leave the home she has lived in for 30 years and to spend most of her savings for a place in a retirement community that has not been built yet is not an easy task.

It takes a lot of "hand holding," patience and persistence, retirement industry sales experts said at a recent Crystal City workshop. Sales agents must make repeated calls and visits to prospects and be ready to press them for a decision, the speakers said.

Most pitches are aimed at single women, who are 80 percent of the Americans moving into new communities for the elderly. Many are widows who depended on their husbands to make major decisions, and now "need help" from sales agents to make the decision to move, the speakers said.

"Your biggest competition is the home these people live in," said Mary Morrow, marketing chief for Retirement Community Developers Inc. in Alexandria. "The hardest thing of all is to get people to move out of the house they're in."

As competition for buyers heats up in the housing market for the elderly, concern is growing among advocacy groups for the elderly that advice like this might result in high-pressure sales tactics and in promises of more services and facilities than developers can deliver. Most vulnerable are elderly women and men who live alone, have lost loved ones and must cope with major changes in their lives, according to individuals and organizations concerned with the welfare of the elderly.

With the influx of for-profit companies into the development of communities for the elderly, "There may be a new set of issues coming up," said Stephen R. McConnell, staff director for the Senate Special Committee on Aging. The committee has asked the Federal Trade Commission to monitor the advertising and sales practices of the companies, he said.

The American Association of Retired Persons, which says it is the world's largest organization of middle-aged and elderly persons, has not received complaints about high-pressure sales tactics, and reports of problems might be "a distortion," according to Leah Dobkin, a housing specialist with the organization. "But if people are receiving that kind of pressure, they wouldn't write to us in the first place because they are less assertive. This is a hidden issue."

Private companies are being lured into a field once dominated by churches and other nonprofit organizations by predictions that the number of Americans over the age of 65 will increase from about 28 million today to nearly 35 million by the end of the century. The communities they are developing fall into two major categories: continuing-care facilities that offer a dwelling unit and a wide range of services designed to meet changing needs of the residents as they age, and developments where a resident buys a condominium or rents a dwelling unit along with a package of recreational and other services.

Traditionally, continuing- or life-care communities charge a large up-front payment, which can range up to $100,000, in return for assurance that medical and nursing care the person might need will be provided, along with other services such as meals, housekeeping and recreation. Residents also must pay monthly maintenance fees that can vary with fluctuations in the economy.

Practices are changing, and vary widely, however, as more for-profit companies enter the field. "Some are using the term life-care, when what they really have is a pay-as-you-go" facility, frequently confusing elderly customers, Dobkin said.

"Life-care communities are strongly associated with the idea that you may pay a lot at the beginning but what you pay later will not vary with the level of care. Consumers see this as long-term-care insurance, which has tremendous appeal," according to M. Powell Lawton, director of behavioral research at the Philadelphia Geriatric Center. Many for-profit companies, however, are now "going for a pay-as-you-go system without the front-end fee, because it is more marketable." Lawton said some companies are not "fully disclosing that, if one needs nursing care, the price will go up immensely.

"It's to a developer's advantage to have people come in as young and healthy as possible, but this goes contrary to studies showing people don't go to life-care communities until their early 80s," Lawton said. "I am concerned about sales pitches that put strong pressure on people to come in young" by warning that, if they wait, they may never be able to get in. "Using a strong sales appeal . . . could tilt the decision of older people to relinquish more years of independent living" than necessary, Lawton said.

Morrow, one of several speakers at the Crystal City conference on building, selling and managing retirement communities, said developers whose sales are lagging sometimes make the mistake of "taking in a frailer population." The result will be that "you won't attract the vital market you want because you will look like a nursing home." She said a "nursing-home atmosphere is a real turnoff" to healthy elderly people.

Research shows that 6 percent of people age 65 and older move each year compared with about 20 percent of people in their 20s, Lawton said. More older people would move if "motivational and economic problems" could be solved, but probably not more than 25 percent of the elderly population, he said.

The desire of the elderly to stay put is one of the biggest hurdles sales people must overcome, Morrow said.

A 75-year-old widow might like what she sees when she visits a retirement community, but then she goes home where "she is surrounded by 30 or 40 years of memories, not to mention furniture," Morrow said. A decision to leave the home "becomes overwhelming" and many women decide to wait.

Skilled sales agents generally have to meet or talk by telephone with a client from eight to 15 times before the elderly person makes a decision, according to Morrow. The customer must come to trust the salesperson enough "to say, 'Gee, this must be the right decision because Mary wouldn't tell me to do it if it weren't right.' "

For some, however, frequent calls represent a troubling, high-pressure sales technique.

Victoria Jaycox, executive director of the Older Women's League, said when she helped her father look for a Florida community where he lives and receives health care, "We were called every few days for weeks. It was pretty awful." Handling the repeated calls can be "difficult for old people. They are often not willing to be nasty to get people off their backs," she said.

Lawton said that "social isolation makes one an easier mark, and many older people become isolated or impaired physically or emotionally." Elderly people who are in contact with the outside world make sound decisions, he added.

To help people opt for a retirement community, some companies employ "move-in coordinators." They help elderly buyers or renters to "part with treasured possessions" they will not have room for in their new community and to make decisions on how to arrange the belongings they do take with them, according to Lee A. McKnight, marketing vice president with American Retirement Corp. of Nashville, Tenn. When his mother moved, McKnight said, "It almost killed her. She was breaking up a homestead, leaving the house where all her children grew up. And she was going to a town house, not a retirement community."

Sales for retirement communities usually start before construction begins, so that residents will be ready to move in as soon as the project is completed, a factor that can be turned to a sales advantage, he said.

"You are selling a dream. It's easier to sell a dream than to sell reality," McKnight said. His company recommends against using model apartments "because people concentrate on the real estate aspect" of the prospective purchase. Buyers will remember details of the model they have seen and complain if those features are not in their own unit, he said.

Morrow said sales people with experience in the hotel and insurance industries often do well in the elderly housing industries because they are accustomed to "selling good feeling, blue sky, intangibles. . . . "

Prospective buyers or renters are generally living in homes that cost "half to a third of what you're asking," she said. They are shocked "if they live in a $300- or $400-a-month apartment and hear $1,500" will be the monthly rent or maintenance fee. "So, hold back on price. First tell them what you offer."

Morrow, saying about 90 percent of the elderly "choose a retirement community on the basis of emotion," advised developers to "let the emotion pour out" of sales brochures. Showing pictures from a sales brochure for a Milwaukee project, she said the colorful photos depicting people in an attractive outdoor setting with lots of green trees and grass were made at Dallas hotels "because there were no leaves on the trees in Milwaukee."

Take care when choosing models for pictures in brochures and other sales material, "because people think of themselves as younger than they are," Morrow said.

Among other pieces of advice from Morrow: Place newspaper advertisements near the obituaries because "that's what 75-year-old ladies read."