The practice of separating elderly couples against their wishes when one or both go into care is "inhumane", according to a High Court judge.
Sir James Munby, the president of the family division at the High Court, has urged social workers to apply "common decency" and do their best to keep couples together – whether in their own home or in residential care.
In a speech to the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services, Sir James said officials should giver a higher priority to the happiness of those in its care and focus less on procedure or safety rules.
He said forcing frail people to leave their homes was not always the best decision if it would substantially impact their happiness.
The 68-year-old, who is the UK's most senior family judge, said it was "absolutely shocking and a profound indictment of our society" that elderly couples who had been together for decades were still sometimes refused shared accommodation.
"I read with personal outrage reports of cases where the results of the operation of the system is that people may have been together for 30,40 or maybe 50 years are separated in their final years", he said.
Nearly 300,000 elderly people are currently living in residential care in England and Wales where local authorities have a duty to meet both their physical and mental needs.
Sir James said he believed that being suddenly separated from a loved one after such a long time together meant that people really could die of a "broken heart".
He said he has read stories of couples who had enjoyed a 50 or 60-year marriage and after one dies "the other dies two days later", saying this was "not a coincidence".
Age UK director, Caroline Abrahams, backed Sir James' intervention, telling The Times: "Even if the local council is arranging and paying for care, they cannot just tell someone where they have to live.
"In some cases partners may have different care needs but except in rare situations couples want to stay together should be allowed to do so".
It follows a social media campaign at the end of last year for an elderly couple who had been together for 70 years to be allowed to stay in the same care home.
Jessie and Ray Lorrison, from South Shields, were separated when Mr Lorrison was taken to Westoe Grange Care Home after Ms Lorrison was taken into hospital after a fall.
The 95-year-old has Alzheimer's Disease and could no longer live at home. But the couple's family said social services had initially told Ms Lorrison she would have to go home without him because she did not meet the criteria to be with him at his nursing home.
One of their grandchildren, Lee Bates, then started an online petition urging South Tyneside Council to reconsider their decision. It received more than 21,000 signatures in just a few days.
Mr Bates told the Shields Gazette: “My grandfather sits and waits for her everyday – confused, anxious and lonely without the woman who has been by his side for 70 years”.
The council then said it had had time to finish the formal assessments of Ms Lorrison and found that she also required 24-hour care because she could not go to the toilet by herself and suffered from a number of physical problems.
As a result, the couple were reunited when she left hospital.
Mr Bates: "We are incredibly relieved and happy that the decision has been made and my grandparents are going to be back together and that my grandmother is going to get the care that she deserves."
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies