BACKGROUND: The purpose of this study was to determine how a variety of reasonable vision screening criteria affected the results of vision screening previously performed on a community-dwelling older adult population. METHODS: The records of 201 previously performed vision screening evaluations of adults over the age of 65 were reanalyzed to determine failure rates using new theoretical criteria. Those criteria included screening by history alone, visual acuity alone, history in combination with visual acuity and a multiple test format with both 20/40 and 20/60 acuity criteria. RESULTS: Theoretical screening that would have taken place using visual acuity of less than 20/60 failed the fewest individuals; however, even using this minimal criteria 46 percent of those screened would have failed. Using a multiple test format the failure rate rises to almost 90 percent. The combination of historical criteria and visual acuity failed almost an identical population as would be failed by using an elaborate multiple test format. CONCLUSIONS: The prevalence of ocular abnormalities in this older adult populations was so high that vision screening done with even minimal criteria can be expected to fail very high numbers. Similar failure rates and composition can be achieved by using historical criteria in combination with visual acuity as are achieved using a more elaborate multiple-test format. Given the high prevalence of eye abnormalities in the older adult population the public health value of screening for the need for eye examination is questionable.