This paper reports findings of a study in 2004 of the development of specialist services for older people in the National Health Service (NHS) in England, as recommended in the Department of Health's National Service Framework for Older People (NSF-OP). The study was funded by the Department of Health as part of a programme of research to explore the Framework's implementation. Information was collected through a questionnaire survey about the nature of specialist developments at three levels of the NHS: strategic health authorities (SHAs), provider Trusts, and service units. This produced an overview of developments and a frame from which to select detailed case studies. Analysis of the survey data showed that there were variations in the way that the NSF-OP was being interpreted and implemented. In particular, there was inconsistency in the interpretation of the NSF-OP's anti-ageism standard; some concluded that the strategy discouraged services exclusively for older people, others that it encouraged dedicated provision for them. The tension between creating age-blind and age-defined services was played out in the context of existing service structures, which had been shaped over decades by many local and national influences. These conceptual and historical factors need to be taken into account if services are to change, as developments are shaped by ‘bottom-up’ local processes as well as ‘top-down’ policy initiatives. In particular, the tension inherent in the NSF-OP between negative and positive ageism, and its varied interpretations at local levels needs to be taken into account when evaluating progress in implementation.