OBJECTIVES: The U.L.I.S.S.E. study is aimed at describing older patients who are cared for in hospitals, home care or nursing homes in Italy. DESIGN: The U.L.I.S.S.E. study is an observational multicenter prospective 1-year study. SETTING: Overall, 23 acute geriatric or internal medicine hospital units, 11 home care services and 31 nursing homes participated in the study. MEASUREMENTS: The patient's evaluation was performed using comprehensive geriatric assessment instruments, i.e. the interRAI Minimum Data Set, while data on service characteristics were recorded using ad-hoc designed questionnaires. RESULTS: The older subjects who are in need of acute and long term care in Italy have similar characteristics: their mean age is higher than 80 years, they have a high level of disability in ADL, an important multimorbidity, and are treated with several drugs. The prevalence of cognitive impairment is particularly high in nursing homes, where almost 70% of residents suffer from it and 40% have severe cognitive impairment. On the other hand, there is a shortage of health care services, which are heterogeneous and fragmented. CONCLUSIONS: Health care services for older people in Italy are currently inadequate to manage the complexity of the older patients. An important effort should be undertaken to create a more integrated health care system.