Elderly persons over the age of 60 who were admitted for psychiatric care were compared with a random sample of persons living in the same community in respect of psychiatric, medical and socio-economic variables. The group admitted to hospital for psychiatric reasons was very similar to the latter in general characteristics. However, those people admitted to old age homes, which are the other major resource for psychiatric illness, constitute a distinctly separate population, being older and having considerably more physical illnesses and socio-economic problems. Factors predicting admission to an old age home were largely irremediable age-related conditions (dementia, physical infirmity, etc.), but there were also adverse social circumstances, including marked isolation and a lack of social and emotional support. A comparative analysis of the many psychiatric, social and medical factors is presented, with particular reference to reasons for referral and prevention of admission. © 1982, Cambridge University Press. All rights reserved.