The debate over whether relatives of elderly hospital patients should be encouraged to help care for them is missing the point. The question is: does the patient need to be in hospital in the first place?
Too many elderly people are admitted to hospital for the convenience of the NHS rather than their own health or quality of life, kept there too long, poorly cared for while they are there and discharged having lost their confidence and continence.
As consultancy McKinsey reported in 2009 to the Labour government, around 40 per cent of hospital patients simply don't need to be there. Most of these are waiting for test results or therapies. The problem often rests with hospital pathology departments, many of which are slow and costly. The cuts to hospital budgets are finally pushing many trusts to make long overdue improvements such establishing one high quality pathology service supporting several hospitals, rather than persevering with their own, inadequate, cottage industry.
The quality of basic care - providing food, drink, washing and toilet facilities - can be scandalously poor. The Care Quality Commission found examples of doctors prescribing patients water because nurses were leaving them dehydrated. Dehydration contributes to around 800 hospital deaths a year. Data from the NHS Information Centre has revealed that each year several thousand patients are malnourished when they leave hospital.
And too often elderly patients are given catheters instead of helped to the toilet, greatly increasing the chances of them becoming incontinent.
Forcing elderly people to stay in hospital longer than necessary is not just wasting money - it makes the difference between continuing to live independently and having to go into a home. It is a moral issue.
The solution to the problem of feeding elderly patients is not to prop the system up with relatives, it is keeping them out of hospital.