Objective: To explore older people's and their relatives' views on and experiences of acute health care.
Design: Systematic procedures were used for study selection and data extraction and analysis. A comparative thematic approach to synthesis was taken with a number of features adopted from the literature on meta-ethnography.
Data sources: Worldwide grey and published literature written in English between January 1999 and June 2008 identified from databases: CINAHL, Medline, British Nursing Index, EMBASE Psychiatry, International Bibliography of the Social Sciences, PsychINFO, and AgeInfo.
Review methods: We conducted a systematic review and synthesis of qualitative studies describing older patients' and/or their relatives' experiences of care in acute hospital settings. 42 primary studies and 1 systematic review met the inclusion criteria.
Results: A number of themes emerged. The quality of technical care is often taken for granted by older patients, and good or bad experiences are described more in terms of relational aspects of care. Older patients in hospital may feel worthless, fearful or not in control of what happens, especially if they have impaired cognition, or communication difficulties. Three key features of care consistently mediated these negative feelings and were linked to more positive experiences: "creating communities: connect with me", "maintaining identity: see who I am" and "sharing decision-making: include me".
Conclusion: These findings highlight the perspectives of older people and their relatives on the delivery of personalized and dignified care in acute settings. They lend support to previous calls for relationship-centred approaches to care and provide a useful experience-based framework for practice for those involved in care for older people.