In the light of long-standing criticism of nursing homes an assessment of staff's ability to provide care was required. By creating a profile of nursing home staff it may be possible to explain and predict difficulties in providing care. One hundred and five staff from 15 nursing homes and 18 hostel staff were interviewed to examine demographic characteristics, attitudes to the job and to the elderly, as well as sources of stress in the workplace. Staff were predominantly female, with children, and had a strong sense of altruism and desire to nurture. They foster an atmosphere of care and protection and may unwittingly encourage dependence. This may preclude challenge and rehabilitation for nursing home residents. Constraints such as staff shortages, stress (35.3 per cent cases on the General Health Questionnaire), lack of training, conflict among staff and lack of support may hamper care. These problems could be addressed by additional training and incentives for staff, increased staff cooperation and communication. Medical practitioners and other health professionals have a significant role to play in assuming greater responsibility for supporting the caregivers in nursing homes.