Background Modern healthcare philosophy espouses the virtues of holistic care and acknowledges that family involvement is appropriate and something to be encouraged due to the role it plays in physical and emotional healing. In the aged care sector, the involvement of families is a strong guarantee of a resident's well-being. The important role family plays in the support and care of the older adult in the residential aged care environment has been enshrined in the Australian Commonwealth Charter of Residents' Rights and Responsibilities and the Aged Care Standards of Practice. Despite wide acknowledgement of the importance of family involvement in the healthcare of the older adult, many barriers to the implementation of participatory family care have been identified in past research. For older adults in the healthcare environment to benefit from the involvement of their family members, healthcare professionals need an understanding of the issues surrounding family presence in the healthcare environment and the strategies to best support it. Objectives The objectives of the systematic review were to present the best available evidence on the strategies, practices and organisational characteristics that promote constructive staff-family relationships in the care of older adults in the healthcare setting. Specifically this review sought to investigate how staff and family members perceive their relationships with each other; staff characteristics that promote constructive relationships with the family; and interventions that support staff-family relationships. Search strategy A literature search was performed using the following databases for the years 1990-2005: Ageline, APAIS Health, Australian Family and Society Abstracts (FAMILY), CINAHL, Cochrane Library, Dare, Dissertation Abstracts, Embase, MEDLINE, PsycINFO and Social Science Index. Personal communication from expert panel members was also used to identify studies for inclusion. A second search stage was conducted through review of reference lists of studies retrieved during the first search stage. The search was limited to published and unpublished material in English language. Selection criteria The review was limited to studies involving residents and patients within acute, subacute, rehabilitation and residential settings, aged over 65 years, their family and healthcare staff. Papers addressing family members and healthcare staff perceptions of their relationships with each other were considered for this review. Studies in this review also included those relating to interventions to promote constructive staff-family relationships including organisational strategies, staff-family meetings, case conferencing, environmental approaches, etc. The review considered both quantitative and qualitative research and opinion papers for inclusion. Data collection and analysis All retrieved papers were critically appraised for eligibility for inclusion and methodological quality independently by two reviewers, and the same reviewers collected details of eligible research. Appraisal forms and data extraction forms designed by the Joanna Briggs Institute as part of the QARI and NOTARI systematic review software packages were used for this review. Findings Family members' perceptions of their relationships with staff showed that a strong focus was placed on opportunities for the family to be involved in the patient's care. Staff members also expressed a theoretical support for the collaborative process, however, this belief often did not translate to the staff members' clinical practice. In the studies included in the review staff were frequently found to rely on traditional medical models of care in their clinical practice and maintaining control over the environment, rather than fully collaborating with families. Four factors were found to be essential to interventions designed to support a collaborative partnership between family members and healthcare staff: communication, information, education and administrative support. Based on the evidence analysed in this systematic review, staff and family education on relationship development, power and control issues, communication skills and negotiating techniques is essential to promoting constructive staff-family relationships. Managerial support, such as addressing workloads and staffing issues; introducing care models focused on collaboration with families; and providing practical support for staff education, is essential to gaining sustained benefits from interventions designed to promote constructive family-staff relationships.