Elderly care sector unions are calling on the government to review staffing standards for residential aged care.
The call was made at a summit in Wellington arranged by the New Zealand Nurses' Organisation (NZNO) and the E tū Union.
The organisations also released a report which presents the results of a survey of aged care workers carried out late last year.
Respondents to the survey said elderly care home residents' emotional and physical needs often went unmet because of a lack of staff, which meant care had to be "rationed".
NZNO industrial advisor for aged care David Wait said standards in the aged care sector were completely voluntary and that had to change.
"Our research shows aged care residents' immediate emotional and physical needs often go unmet because staff are forced to ration the way they care, and if you're not a priority you miss out.
"Aged care under-staffing is hurting everybody, and we're confident the public will back our call for the government to review existing standards."
Mr Wait said the standards were published in 2005, were inadequate even then.
"Things have changed dramatically since 2005. We have more people in aged care, they're entering facilities later in life with much greater care needs and they're living longer."
E tū delegate and care and support worker Marianne Bishop said the survey reflected the reality of working life for the country's aged care workforce.
"We know from the survey that many carers are in despair.
"They're absolutely exhausted at their end of their shift. They can't take breaks because they want to get the work done. Then at the end of the day, they're sitting in their cars and crying.
"And it's not just about them. It's about the care that's being denied to the people they care for. It's not right."
Sakesh Prakash, an enrolled nurse working in a Waikato facility, said at least once a shift patients' families complained, concerned their relatives' needs were not being met.
"'My dad hasn't had a shave or mum isn't dressed properly. The hearing aid is not put on.' Sometimes, like, people forget to put dentures on residents for breakfast. This is [what it is] like when you are short of staff."