AIM: This paper reports a study examining how nursing home staff experienced working with residents' families. BACKGROUND: Working collaboratively with the family in residential aged care to provide care is consistent with nursing philosophy. The quality of the experience, however, is frequently fraught with problems for both the family and staff involved. Little research has focused on the nature of family involvement in nursing homes from the perspective of nursing home staff. METHODS: The study adopted a naturalistic paradigm. Data were collected from 30 nursing home staff members drawn from a range of metropolitan and rural facilities in Victoria, Australia by means of conversational in-depth interviews. Issues concerned with how participants constructed the role of the family in the nursing home were explored. The data were collected in 2001-2002. RESULTS: Four key elements are presented in this paper: (1) Making the transition; (2) Forming ties; (3) Keeping them at a distance and (4) Unacceptable behaviour. Some nursing home staff have developed a substantive family orientation and had adopted practices which were inclusive of the family. Equally, many attitudes which cast the family into an adversarial and competitive role were noted, and many staff members outlined practices which were indicative of a need to control the family. CONCLUSION: A rhetoric of family partnerships is prevalent in some nursing homes. The activities of staff in these homes are still primarily geared towards provision of physical care, and families' needs become secondary to getting the work done. A new model of practice is needed that sees working collaboratively with families as a legitimate and necessary part of the staff role.