Aim. This paper is a report of a study to explore the development of specialist staffing for older people in six case study sites in the United Kingdom. Background. In the United Kingdom there has been some concern about the health care available to older people, leading to the development of a National Service Framework. A key theme of this framework is the development of specialist staff skilled in providing services tailored to the needs of older people. Method. A soft systems methodology was used in 2004–2005 to carry out interviews with key people, including specialist nurses for older people, other service providers, patients and informal carers (n = 132) in six case study sites identified from a national questionnaire. Interviewees were asked to describe their perceptions of the development, its history and its impact. Findings. The development of specialist nursing services seemed to be shaped by national policy drivers for service development, which may not have been directly linked to the needs of older people. The ideal qualities of a specialist nurse for older people were described by participants as including not only knowledge and skills, but also personal characteristics. Conclusion. While progress has been made in establishing specialist posts, much remains to be explored about the roles of postholders, the qualities needed, and the support and preparation required. While advanced practice is a professional aspiration, a number of questions arise about the development of nursing as a self-directing profession in diverse international settings. Theories of specialist nursing practice also need to address the tensions between universal and local models and to consider theories about nursing older people.