The knowledge, attitudes, and behavior of elderly persons regarding living wills were explored in a rural county in eastern North Carolina. A questionnaire was administered to 75 ambulatory elderly persons by personal interview at community dining sites. Fifty-two percent (39) of these subjects said they were familiar with living wills and 64% (48 persons) correctly summarized what the North Carolina living will says. When asked about preferences for medical care in the setting of a terminal illness, 86% (65 persons) stated a desire to receive basic medical care or comfort care only. Although their preferences were consistent with the provisions of a living will, none had signed the living will document provided by the state of North Carolina, and only two (3%) had discussed a living will with their physician. Seventy (93%) wanted their family or spouse to make decisions about terminal care if they themselves were unable to participate, and discussions between these persons and their chosen proxies actually occurred 45% (34/75) of the time. Eighty-one percent (61 persons) stated a desire to discuss end-of-life care with their physicians, but a minority (eight [11%]) had actually talked with their physicians, and these discussions were usually initiated by the patient (five of eight). We conclude that living will legislation is congruent with the desire of many elderly persons to limit medical care in terminal illness. However, this elderly population did not make use of living wills as a means of indicating their wishes. Recommendations are made to improve physician-patient and patient-proxy communication regarding preferences for medical care at the end of life and living wills. Alternatives to the living will should also be explored.