Washington — Several thousand older Americans arrive in the capital next week for a once-in-a-decade event. It's usually a quiet affair, but this year may prove to be different.
Already the White House Conference on Aging has turned into a political hot potato, with wrangling over the number of last-minute delegates picked by the Reagan administration and charges that conference rules will muffle dissent.
Conference officials say that critics exaggerate the number of new delegates, which they say is far fewer than 400, although they give no official number. Conference director Betty H. Brake said in an interview that the total number (2 ,300 delegates, 1,500 observers) meets the original estimate set long ago for the conference.
To charges that rules will stifle discussion, she responded that the ''general structure of the conference'' will be to ensure that it completes its work.
Behind the controversy is the fact that this year's conference on aging, fourth in a series that began in 1950, comes at a highly sensitive time. Programs for the elderly are being cut back and only a few months ago President Reagan offered a proposal to cut social security for early retirees. The social security plan was quickly withdrawn, but not before touching off concern and anger among many older Americans.
Paul A. Kerschner, chief lobbyist for the American Association of Retired Persons, says that his organization's mail ran 70 to 30 in favor of President Reagan before he proposed the social security cutback. Afterwards, the figures were reversed.
Delegates to the White House Conference were further upset last month when the Republican National Committee polled them to find out their political views.
''For the first time, a political party has sought to inject a taint of partisanship over the delegates before they get to Washington,'' says Jack Ossofsky, executive director of the National Council on Aging.
Even without the political struggles, leaders of major organizations for the aged have lower expectations for this conference, comparing it with past ones. The conference in 1961 is credited for spurring medicare. After the 1971 meeting came a federal ban on most mandatory retirement before age 70 and establishment of local agencies on aging.
This year no such major program or law has yet surfaced. Instead, say several participants, the aim at the Nov. 30 through Dec. 3 conference at two hotels here will be holding tight to gains already made.
Those gains are considerable. The issues and problems of aging have come before the public vividly since the 1971 conference. Older persons, who now make up 12 percent of the US population and grow in number every year, have developed political clout. Society is beginning to look at them in new ways.
''Older people are 'younger' than ever before,'' says the Council on Aging's Ossofsky. ''Their health on the whole is better. The level of education is higher. Their capacities are better understood.''
Myths about older people are being destroyed, he adds, including the false perception that ''aged people can't do anything, that they are all frail and can't learn new skills, and that they have a lot of accidents on the job.''
In only a few years, says Ossofsky, managers who once favored mandatory retirement have come to oppose it.
''There is continued exaggeration of the problems and frailties of older people,'' says Ossofsky who adds that older people themselves believe the stereotypes about their peers even when they don't see themselves as frail.
He also points to effective new role models for the elderly, and his favorite example is President Reagan. ''I may not agree with everything he says, but the fact that he's a vigorous, healthy, charming, humorous, and able and effective man can't be lost on the nation,'' he says. ''When it is hard for most 69 to 70 year olds to get a job, he was elected President.''
Jobs will be a major concern at next week's meeting. Conference director Brake predicts that many of the delegates will be interested in later retirement and finding ways for part-time work. She concedes that some of the participants will criticize cuts in federal aid programs and proposals for trimming social security.
But she says that the focus will be ''not what the elderly need but more what the elderly can do.'' Director Brake said of the volunteers: ''One thing they told me - that it feels so good to wake up in the morning and have something to do and know that someone needs me.''
Another major theme at the conference will be home and community nursing care. Current federal laws favor institutional care for the elderly, so that families can have aid if they send older relatives into nursing homes, but not if they care for them at home. The conference is likely to find widespread approval for plans to provide more care in homes.
As with other White House conferences, the meeting will draw up a list of recommendations for action during the next decade.