As elderly Americans make up an increasingly larger percentage of the population, there is growing concern about the quality of care available to them in nursing homes. So far, the picture is less than encouraging.

While many nursing homes offer excellent care, there are a significant number that fall short of government standards.As the latest case in point, take this week's report on a surprise inspection of 15,000 nursing homes nationwide by the Department of Health and Human Services. The inspection found that 43 percent of the nursing homes failed to meet food sanitation standards, 30 percent didn't properly administer drugs or ensure good personal hygiene, and 21 percent failed to offer adequate rehabilitative care.

What kind of a life are we offering the elderly who are placed in nursing homes? Are too many nursing homes simply warehouses for the old, places to wait to die?

These questions are vital to millions of people. While some 1.5 million Americans currently reside in nursing homes, the number is expected to rise dramatically - to 2.5 million by the year 2000. And the numbers will continue to grow.

This expansion raises problems not only of quality, but serious issues of staffing and costs.

Nursing home care cost the nation $41 billion last year, at least half of it picked up by taxpayers through Medicaid, the program for low-income families. As costs rise, the burden inevitably will get heavier for taxpayers - one more drain on an already deficit-ridden budget.

Congress already has toughened the rules for nursing homes and more provisions will become effective in 1990. They include a "bill of rights" for nursing home residents, more inspections, fines and other punishments for violations, and efforts to promote more training.

While tougher rules are necessary, the government cannot watch over every nursing home all the time.

Choosing a nursing home will have to be done by most people the old-fashioned way: making personal visits and picking a place based on the cost and first-hand inspection.

The government study is available in each nursing home, showing how the facility fared in the inspection. Prospective clients should ask to look at it, but don't just depend on the report.

Visitors also should carefully inspect the home for general cleanliness, check out the food, ask about numbers and training of personnel, inquire about rehabilitation services, see if residents can freely move about, find out what activities are offered, and check on personal hygiene standards for residents.

Such an inspection won't guarantee a quality choice, but given the wide variety of nursing homes, it appears to be the best approach for now.