The needs of the elderly - adequate housing, income, health care, education, and job opportunities - have never figured prominently in the decisions of major US philanthropists.
Last year, the nation's 360 leading foundations devoted only $18 million - 1. 4 percent of their total giving - to projects benefiting the elderly. In 1980 the total was 2 percent, or $24 million.
That's why a new foundation on aging, formally announced Sept. 19, is meeting a warm welcome from professionals involved in helping America's older citizens. The Villers Foundation, funded by a $40 million endowment from Boston businessman Philippe Villers, will be among the largest dealing exclusively with the problems of older Americans. Its assets would have made it the 150th largest foundation in the United States in 1980, according to records kept by The Foundation Center in Washington, D.C. On that basis, it would rank in the top 1 percent of the nation's 22,535 listed philanthropies.
Mr. Villers says an important role for the foundation will be to combat limiting views of the elderly. ''We've boxed the elderly into a role that diminishes their ability to make the contribution to our lives that their years of experience and resultant wisdom can offer,'' he says. ''Not only are we cutting short productive lives and watching the elderly devalue their own existence, but we're squandering resources we can ill afford to spare.''
In the view of James Birren at the University of Southern California's Andrus Gerontology Center, the Villers Foundation is part of a broad, growing awareness of elderly issues. Behind this awareness, says Dr. Birren, lies a ''demographic imperative.'' About 1 in 10 Americans are over age 65 today; by the year 2000, the number is expected to double to 1 in 5. Worldwide, 1 billion people may be over age 60 by the year 2020, concluded the UN World Assembly on Aging in July.
Experts on issues of concern to the elderly agree that no foundation, however well-funded, can replace the billions of dollars the federal government spends each year through social security, health care, and other programs. But they say the foundation's announced goals of promoting research, providing seed money for model projects, and acting as a advocate for the elderly with government and industry can have an important effect.
''Small monies can have lots of spinoffs,'' says Paul Kursher, associate director of the American Association of Retired People. ''Given what is going on in government, this is welcome news. The field is excited about it.''
Dr. Kursher says the foundation is part of a recent pattern of corporate interest in elderly issues. For example, Digital Corporation in Maynard, Mass., has recently created the post of industrial gerontologist, he says. Sears and Roebuck is sponsoring a series of films on aging for high-school students, and the Levi Strauss Foundation has targeted research on elderly issues as one of three major areas it is funding.
''Villers will help correct the impression among foundations that the (aging) problem is so large that 'maybe it's not for us,' '' adds Birren.
Only 1 out of every 5 foundation dollars spent on programs for the elderly ''introduced new kinds of solutions or contributed to changes in current aging policies, with the rest spent on maintaining existing services,'' concludes a 1980 study conducted by the Burden Foundation. ''Little is being done to break down stereotypes,'' that affect federal, state, and local policies, says Jack Ossofsky, executive director of the National Council on Aging. The Villers Foundation can be an ''enormously important step forward. . . . It can serve as a magnet'' to attract interest to the field, he says.
Mr. Villers, who at the age of five fled France with his family just ahead of the Nazi invasion of 1940 and later helped found an innovative computer-graphics company, had been searching for a way to repay the country that took him in.
Mr. Villers, who two years ago founded Automatix, Inc., a robotic systems company, says his firm does not have a mandatory retirement age and offers part-time work for older employees who wish to have more free time.
He is not openly critical of Reagan administration cutbacks. ''Government is not the source of social change,'' he says. ''It reacts to a consensus'' from the people. The foundation's role, he says, will be to build that consensus.
Announcement of the Villers Foundation comes at a time when federal support for private foundations is dropping. According to a study by the Washington-based Urban Institute released earlier this month, private nonprofit organizations stand to lose $33 billion in federal aid from 1982 through 1985 if Reagan administration budget proposals are carried out.