Housing, more than health care, is the "quiet crisis" threatening older women - many of whom are heads of households.

That was the message Saturday of speakers at the state's first conference for older women on housing options and related issues."Getting Your Home in Order" was the topic of the conference, sponsored by the American Association of Retired Persons, Salt Lake County Aging Services, Better Business Bureau, Intermountain Health Care, Senior Citizens Law Center and the University of Utah Gerontology Center.

"You need to continually think ahead and be brutally honest with yourself," Shauna O'Neil, director of Salt Lake County Aging Services, told women gathered at the Salt Lake Hilton. "This is not a time to look at the world through rose-colored glasses. This, if anything, may be a time to be a little pessimistic."

According to O'Neil and other conference speakers, the realism is this: 73 percent of older women live in homes they own. But 71 percent of women age 65 and older lived alone in 1985 and of these, 27 percent lived in poverty. Only one out of five women over age 65 receives any income from pensions.

By comparison, 15 percent of men age 65 and older lived alone in 1985, and 19 percent lived in poverty.

Today 40 percent of public housing is occupied by people age 65 and older, and 73 percent of them are women.

In addition to lack of funds, O'Neil said loneliness and loss of independence can become major issues for these mature women, who may become victims of consumer scams.

Conference speakers throughout the day provided information on legal resources, consumer options and in-home services designed to help decrease victimization and to promote coping skills through increased awareness.

A major topic of discussion was housing options, which O'Neil urged women to look at with renewed enthusiasm.

"Today is the day to plan ahead to where you'll be living five years from now," she urged. "There are a lot of choices when it comes to housing."

Among the options participants were introduced to Saturday were group homes, shared housing, government and subsidized housing, residential care, retirement homes, and home equity conversion and reverse mortgage annuities.

The legal issues of home ownership were also discussed, as was home repair, maintenance and security.

"The time to make a housing decision is when there's no crisis," O'Neil emphasized. "A house means a lot more than a structure. It's an entity from which everything emanates and to which everything comes."