AIM OF STUDY To describe the residents of a nursing home for the elderly in terms of their socio-demographic profile, mental and physical attributes, functional abilities and existing medical problems. METHOD A random sample of 120 subjects was obtained from a total of 350 residents in a voluntary welfare nursing home. Two subjects were excluded as they did not satisfy inclusion criteria (age > or = 60 years). The subjects' biodata, social background, medical problems and functional status at the time of admission were obtained by a review of the case records. Each of the subjects was examined with attention to their general condition, hearing and vision, presence of postural hypotension, cognition and ability to perform basic activities of daily living (ADL). RESULTS Results were available for 106 out of the 118 subjects as the rest were either discharged in the course of the study or had died. Single (36%), widowed (41%), female (71%) and age > or = 75 years (73%) consisted the majority. Most subjects (43%) were admitted because of both medical and social factors. Twenty-two percent appeared undernourished and of those who could be assessed, 14% had postural hypotension, 18% were hearing impaired and 53% had visual impairment. Fifty-two per cent suffered from mental problems while 46% and 40% had been diagnosed with hypertension and stroke respectively. Forty-eight percent had probable cognitive impairment (according to ECAQ scores) and 41% were very severely disabled (according to Barthel Index). Fifty-five percent were dependent in bathing, 50% dependent in dressing, 50% incontinent of urine (and requiring diapers), 48% were non-ambulant and 21% dependent in feeding. CONCLUSION With a significant proportion of the population requiring nursing home care in the future, a closer review of the situation is needed. This study has identified malnutrition, urinary incontinence, falls, functional decline and impaired vision/hearing as issues that deserve greater attention and, where necessary, intervention. Whether implementing recognised effective interventions will truly benefit our nursing home residents would warrant more local studies.