All 98 elderly patients who were known to have diabetes on the lists of two inner-city general practices were interviewed and examined in their own homes. They were characterized in terms of their prevalence of vascular complications, metabolic control, perceived health (measured by the Nottingham Health Profile), frequency of hospital and general practice contacts and use of domiciliary 'support services' and compared to 98 control subjects with an identical age/gender distribution. Mean haemoglobin A1 in the diabetic patients was 9.9 +/- 2.5%, few of them had suffered severe hyperglycaemia (10%) or hypoglycaemia (5%) and they were little more obese than controls (mean body mass index 26.2 +/- 4.2 vs 24.6 +/- 4.1 kg m-2; 95% confidence interval for the difference 0.4-2.8; p < 0.01). All complications were more prevalent in diabetic patients and the difference was statistically significant for visual impairment, strokes, impaired mental test scores, absent vibration sense, and absent leg pulses. Cataract was more common than retinopathy as a cause of visual disability. Diabetic patients perceived their health to be much worse than controls and were more often depressed. No measure of perceived health correlated with haemoglobin A1. We conclude that care of the diabetic elderly should not be too narrowly focused on 'metabolic' goals.