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Leading article: Elderly care must become a priority

The Alzheimer's Society yesterday published an indictment of the care of patients with dementia in the NHS.

A quarter of all hospital beds are occupied by patients with the condition and more than half of them leave in a worse state than they arrive. They stay longer than patients without dementia being treated for the same condition and a third are discharged straight to a care home. If the society's findings are to be believed, therefore – and they have been accepted by ministers – we are spending hundreds of millions of pounds making patients worse, not better.

The findings echo those by the Patients Association last summer which published a catalogue of cases of elderly people left in pain, in soiled bed clothes, denied adequate food and drink, and suffering from repeatedly cancelled operations, missed diagnoses and dismissive staff. In that report, while the criticisms covered all aspects of hospital care, it was the poor attitude of nurses that was a constant theme.

All patients need care and compassion and what these reports expose is the NHS's failure to deliver it. Degree level education, now planned for all nurses by 2013, won't help. Well run, properly managed hospitals with well motivated staff will. Neil Hunt, chief executive of the Alzheimer's Society says there are "scandalous" variations in the quality of dementia care in hospitals.

Frank Dobson, the 1997 Labour Government's first health secretary, used to say that he could tell within five minutes of entering a hospital whether it was well run. There is an indefinable buzz about a thriving institution, and a morale sapping gloom pervading a poorly managed one. But responsibility for the unacceptable care of dementia patients does not lie solely with managers. As nurses have pointed out, caring for a dementia patient is more challenging and more time consuming than caring for one without dementia. It requires extra resources, better training and more support.

The Government, while backing the Alzheimer's Society's findings, has offered nothing more than warm words. Ministers made a priority of tackling hospital infections with considerable success. It is time they devoted similar effort to prioritising care of the elderly.