BACKGROUND The aim of this study was to examine the impact of residential respite care on disruptive behavior displayed by older people, particularly those with dementia. METHODS A quasi-experimental, repeated-measures, single-group design was used. The participants were a consecutive series of 100 older people with a mean age of 81.8 years (range 66-96 years) who had been booked for a respite admission to one of several residential aged care facilities in a provincial Australian city. A diagnosis of dementia was reported for 29% of the sample. Disruptive behaviors were rated before and after the period of respite by home caregivers (N = 100) and during the period of respite by nurses (N = 25) using the Dementia Behavior Disturbance Scale (DBDS). RESULTS Age, male gender and the presence of dementia were all significantly related to the frequency of reported disruptive behaviors. Residential respite care was associated with a significant reduction in the frequency of reported disruptive behaviors in older people (Wald chi2 = 28.28, p < 0.0001). However, this improvement in behavior did not persist into the post-respite period. The deteriorating behavioral trajectory that was evident prior to respite care continued following the period of respite care. CONCLUSIONS Residential respite care was associated with a temporary diminution in the frequency of reported disruptive behaviors in older people. This finding should be reassuring both for family carers considering placing a relative in residential respite care and for health workers considering whether to recommend such a course of action.