INTRODUCTION: The growing proportions of older people in rural areas have implications for the provision of health and social care services. Older people are more likely to have complex health needs compared with other age groups, requiring a full range of primary, community and acute hospital services. The provision of services to older people in rural areas is challenged by diseconomies of scale, travel costs and difficulties in attracting staff. Policy-makers are requested to include the 'voice' of older people to help provide services that match needs and context. In spite of this, what older people want from health and social care services is a neglected area of investigation. The reported study was conducted in 2005/2006 as part of a European Union Northern Periphery Programme (EU NPP) project called Our Life as Elderly. Its aims were to explore the views of those aged 55 years and over and living in remote communities about current and future health and social care service provision for older people. Evidence was to be collected that could inform policy-makers about changing or improving service delivery. This article summarises emergent themes and considers their implications. METHODS: The study selected two small remote mainland Scottish Highland communities for in-depth case study. Semi-structured interviews (n = 23), 10 'informal conversations' and 4 focus groups were held with community members aged 55 years and over, in order to provide different types of qualitative data and 'layers' of data to allow reflection. Data analysis was assisted by computerised data management software and performed using the 'framework analysis' approach. RESULTS: Participants did not consider themselves 'old' and expressed the need for independence in older age to be supported by services. Several aspects of services that were undergoing change or restructuring were identified, including arrangements for home care services, meals provision and technological support. Participants valued elements of the traditional model of care they had been receiving: these were local, personal emphasis and continuity. They were suspicious of new arrangements perceived to emphasise technical efficiency. Health and care services were described as inter-linked with other aspects of rural living, including transport and housing (which might have to be relinquished to pay for care). Proximity to family was desired for social and domestic support only; health and related support should be from generic service providers. Community members were involved in reciprocal help-giving of many types. CONCLUSION: The findings compare with results of other studies of older rural people internationally, and generic 'principles' of service derived could guide restructuring. There may be systemic challenges to empowering older people's 'voice' in designing sustainable rural services that stem from society's views of older people, attitudes of communities to collective roles and responsibilities, and the fragmented ways that services are sometimes provided.