OBJECTIVE The number of elderly people with chronic diseases receiving ambulant nursing care in the German population is continually increasing. However, little information is available on the quality of care of elderly diabetic patients. The aim of this study was to investigate the pattern of care provided for this group by such ambulatory nursing services. PATIENTS AND METHODS All ambulant nursing services in the county of Heinsberg, North-Rhine-Westphalia, were contacted and asked to answer a standardized questionnaire. 23 of the 24 services participated in the study and provided suitable answers. The study was conducted between October 1998 and March 1999. RESULTS All services together took care of 337 persons with known diabetes mellitus, of whom 79.6% were female and 20.4% were male. The total diabetes prevalence among all patients was 27.2%. 231 diabetic persons (68.5%) were treated with insulin. Nurses administered insulin to 84.8% of the patients. As expected many diabetics had severe late complications (7.4% amputation, 20.8% blindness, 4.2% renal failure). In the majority of patients, blood glucose was monitored, but only occasionally, whereas urinary glucose was checked in only a few cases. Foot inspection and care were provided regularly. 115 diabetics (34.1%) had at least one hospital stay during the previous 12-months period. CONCLUSION The results of this study indicate that ambulatory nursing services care mainly for insulin-treated diabetic patients in late stages of the disease. The current organisational structure not meet the requirements of modern diabetes management.