We assessed the management of urinary incontinence amongst older people in residential and nursing homes and examined strategies for continence care in the homes.

A random sample of local authority and private residential and nursing homes was drawn from an earlier census of long-term care. Strategies for continence care, the standard of care provided and the need for more help were determined by means of a structured questionnaire and the observations of a continence adviser. A random selection of residents in each of the homes was assessed for the presence, severity and symptoms of urinary incontinence, for symptom control and physical dependency.

Eighty-seven per cent of the homes used pads and 83% daytime toileting to promote continence care but only 52% practised night-time toileting and 49% the use of clear toilet signs. A greater emphasis was placed on incontinence management rather than continence promotion, the latter being ‘good’ in only 32% of homes. Although the majority of homes reported having adequate access to aids and appliances, 39% of residents had severe symptoms of urinary incontinence resulting in bed-wetting and wetting of clothing. Substantial social and psychological effects were found; 87% of residents needed changes in their management of the condition and incontinence management was ‘good’ in only 47% of homes. Although 73% of homes were optimistic about offering good continence care, they were infrequently supported by continence nurses (30% of homes) or specialist continence doctors (9% of homes). Consequently 57% requested more help from the specialist services.

The high prevalence of severe and uncontrolled symptoms of urinary incontinence combined with the lack of support received by the homes for the management of these residents indicated the urgent need for a greater input from the specialist continence service.