QUESTION: Recently, a local hospital invited me to join its senior-membership program. Although the brochure states that membership is free, I'm skeptical. Why would the hospital give away services?

ANSWER: Spurred by heightened competition, a growing number of hospitals offer membership programs designed to attract more seniors, the predominant consumers of health-care. (Senior-membership programs should not be confused with membership HMOs.) Coaxing them with a variety of free or low-cost benefits, hospitals anticipate long-term gain as members use inpatient and other services.

But older consumers can profit as well, says Connie Evashwick, a Los Angeles consultant in geriatrics.

Although the most common benefits (for example, membership cards and newsletters) are often as much hype as help, and others (such as physician-referral services) may be routinely offered to all patients, some programs offer benefits that represent substantial savings, including pharmacy discounts and waivers on Medicare deductibles and co-payments.

Evashwick advises members to verify that these benefits are "real and usable." For example, a prescription discounted 10 percent at a pharmacy with inflated prices may cost more than a regularly priced prescription at another store. To qualify for Medicare co-payment or deductible waivers, members may have to carry certain supplemental insurance.

Evashwick notes that the only drawback to enrolling in several senior-membership programs is difficulty remembering which offers what benefits.

QUESTION: I recently attended the funeral of a close friend's 80-year-old mother. Although she was elderly, her death was unexpected and no funeral arrangements had been made. I am concerned that the family may be in a financial bind since the funeral was costly and they are not well off. How can I help my family avoid this situation?

ANSWER: The best solution is to plan ahead. Although it may be difficult to face your own mortality or that of a loved one, people should discuss and act on their wishes concerning final rites. Pre-planning a funeral can alleviate some of the pain and stress of losing a loved one and help avoid undue expenses caused by panic planning by the bereaved.

Each person should consider what type of service he wants and can afford. Is it a "traditional" funeral with hymns and a eulogy? Does the individual want flowers or does he prefer to have charitable donations made in his name? Would the person like to donate his organs? If so, he should let his family and physician know. (A donor card and sticker are available from many Dept. of Motor Vehicle offices.)

Another option is cremation, which may include a memorial service and the ashes scattered over a favorite spot.

Besides discussing plans with your family and physician, it is also a good idea to discuss them with an attorney (be sure to have a will kept up to date), insurance representative, funeral director and others who may be involved. Prepaying a funeral is one option. However, buyer beware: Prepaid plans vary a great deal and, depending on the plan, may be risky.

"Prepaying Your Funeral: Some Questions to Ask" is available free by writing Consumer Affairs, Program Dept., American Assoc. of Retired Persons, 1909 K St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20049.

QUESTION: A friend in her 50s is divorcing after 27 years of marriage. I know it's a trying time for her and would like to help. Any suggestions?

ANSWER: Be a steadfast friend, suggests Imogene Rigdon of Westminster College in Salt Lake City. She asked 109 divorced men and women age 50-plus how others were helpful when their decades-long marriages came apart.

They recalled wanting to be included in their friends' lives and "accepted as . . . still the same person" despite the divorce, Rigdon said. She added that the reverse often happens as friends drift away when a couple divorces.

According to respondents, the most helpful friends listen intently without passing judgment or giving too much advice. They also engage the divorcing person with calls, visits and invitiations. These gestures may be most beneficial during the painful period preceding divorce, Rigdon said, noting that many view the divorce itself "as just a legal event."

For older men and women contemplating divorce, here's what those who have been through it suggest:

- Do all you can to save the marriage; seek counseling and communicate with your spouse. This way, regardless of the outcome, you'll know you've done your best.

- Be prepared for divorce; anticipate its social, financial and emotional effects. Because their income tends to drop following divorce, older women in particular need to consider how they will support themselves financially.

- If the marriage can't be saved, end it promptly.

- Take care of yourself. To balance feelings of guilt, anger and failure, divorcing men and women should reaffirm their belief in themselves and treat themselves kindly.

Send questions about growing older to On Aging, P.O. Box 84256, Los Angeles, Calif. 90073. Questions of general interest will be answered in the column; individual answers cannot be provided.