TORONTO - So serious is he about the welfare of seniors, one of Ontario's most outspoken cabinet ministers said Wednesday he's prepared to don an adult diaper -- and use it -- to satisfy himself that elderly residents of the province's nursing homes are getting appropriate care.

Health Minister George Smitherman sent eyebrows skyward when he made the straight-faced suggestion in response to critics who say the standard of care in Ontario nursing homes is so bad, residents are spending hours on end wallowing in soiled diapers.

Those complaints have prompted him to "seriously consider" taking one of the diapers commonly used in Ontario nursing homes out for a test run.

"I've got one of these incontinence products - albeit a new one, not the ones that tend to appear at committee - on my desk and I'm really giving this matter very serious contemplation," Smitherman told a group of wide-eyed reporters.

"I want to have the right policy for Ontarians."

The bizarre remarks sparked outrage among opposition parties and lobby groups who advocate for better standards in the province's long-term care facilities. The minister is making a farce out of serious questions about the dignity afforded seniors in Ontario, they charged.

"Smitherman's a damned embarrassment," said NDP critic Peter Kormos, whose leader Howard Hampton made an impassioned plea for seniors during the election campaign last fall.

"One doesn't have to use or exhaust one's imagination to understand the humiliation, the indignity of sitting in one's own waste for what could be hours at a time."

Progressive Conservative Leader John Tory called Smitherman's comments a "disgrace."

"It's some kind of a sideshow he seems determined to put on when, in fact, I think people in Ontario would say, 'George Smitherman, do something about it."'

Premier Dalton McGuinty defended his minister, saying Smitherman was only doing what he felt was appropriate "under the circumstances."

"I know where some of you may want to go with this issue and if you mention that particular word, it can draw guffaws and it's easy to make light of it," said McGuinty, who worked as an orderly before heading to university.

"I think what we all need to do is remind ourselves that this is a matter of human dignity. If this was your mother or your father or your husband, you'd see it as such."

Smitherman explained that his unorthodox proposal was intended to gain a better understanding of an issue he didn't comprehend fully.

Products designed to help adults deal with incontinence have undergone an "evolution" in recent years and have become more absorbent, making them an invaluable tool in improving the quality of life for elderly people, he said.

Some of his staff laughed at him "the first three times" he talked about the idea, but Smitherman insisted the matter is no joke.

"I said, 'How does a guy like me really actually figure out what's right about all this?"' he said. "Is a product that offers greater absorption capability an appropriate product or is that a front for some diminishment of care?"

The furor over his remarks appeared to overshadow calls for better care - calls the government has yet to answer. The indignity suffered by seniors forced to sit in soiled diapers only scratches the surface of what's wrong in Ontario nursing homes, critics say.

Some facilities are so short-staffed, residents are forced to wait for hours for meals, are put to bed too early and aren't getting enough exercise, said caregivers who work in nursing homes.

Smitherman promised that legally binding minimum standards of care for residents in nursing homes could be established within months of the Liberals taking office following the election, but that hasn't happened, said Sid Ryan, president of the Ontario chapter of the Canadian Union of Public Employees.

"If the minister wants to play silly games, well then, let him put on a diaper and sleep in it all night long and come into the legislature and wear it up until 12 o'clock," said Ryan, whose union represents nursing-home workers.

"Let him soil that diaper and lay around in it for the length of time that our seniors have to do in this province."

Smitherman said the province is improving care in nursing homes, pointing to recent improvements in meals and an additional 2.3 million hours of nursing care allocated to long-term residents.

But McGuinty wouldn't commit to CUPE's demand for a minimum 3.5 hours for resident care.

"I don't know what three-and-a-half hours represents, whether that's adequate or inadequate," he said.