Nellie O'Reardon's 10-month stay in Clayponds hospital, Ealing, west London, has meant other, needier, patients cannot be admitted. Across the country dozens of accident and emergency units have been forced to keep patients waiting on trolleys, in some cases overnight, because no beds have been available.
The care of Mrs O'Reardon, 89, is also costing the taxpayer tens of thousands of pounds more than necessary. She was assessed in October as needing care in a nursing home but, although the charge of pounds 378 a week is half the cost of her hospital bed, the health authority says it cannot pay its share.
The case highlights a dilemma for the NHS, faced with a growing burden of elderly patients needing long-term support after their medical needs have been met. Mrs O'Reardon, who has multiple sclerosis, had a stroke last year and needs round-the-clock care before she can be discharged.
Yesterday there were signs that the pressure on the NHS was easing as the Emergency Beds Service said there were 37 intensive-care units across the country with beds available. But Frank Dobson, Secretary of State for Health, told the Commons the situation could deteriorate: "It could get worse again if icy weather were to lead to a lot of falls, particularly among the elderly. The NHS cannot be complacent. It isn't and I'm not."
The Royal College of Nursing released figures confirming there are 13,000 full-time nurses posts vacant nationwide. City forecasters have predicted the Government could afford an above-average pay rise for nurses as it heads towards predicted budget surpluses of up to pounds 10bn.
"Bed-blocking" by elderly patients was identified by the NHS executive as a key factor hindering hospitals' ability to cope with winter pressures. Guidance on discharge procedures was issued in 1997 but, as Mrs O'Reardon's case demonstrates, problems remain.
Mrs O'Reardon's daughter, Kathleen Collins, who has been trying to have her moved into a nursing home in Luton, where she lives, said: "She ... feels she is never going to get out of hospital ... They are saying she can't have physiotherapy because she can no longer walk and she can't have speech therapy because she can't speak. It is so depressing. It is like saying to her: `You've had it - you've just got to sit there like a cabbage'."
Mrs O'Reardon's case has been taken up by the Relatives Association, which wrote to Mr Dobson, asking him to intervene.
Alison Charlton, advice co-ordinator at the association, said that, according to the health authority, Mrs O'Reardon was 18th on the waiting-list for a nursing-home place and there were 51 other patients in the same position.
"I think you can imagine how it feels to be 89 years old, disabled and effectively homeless and in hospital at this time of year," she wrote.