Data relating to the use of hypnotic medicines from a descriptive epidemiological study of drug use in 55 residential homes for elderly people were analysed. Of the 1888 residents included in the study, 435 (23.0%) were receiving a total of 448 hypnotic medicines. There was preferential prescribing of short-acting benzodiazepines but long-acting benzodiazepines represented 31.7% of all hypnotic drugs prescribed. The median duration of treatment with temazepam was 0.8 years and with nitrazepam 2.5 years. The proportion of residents receiving hypnotic medicines in each home varied from 3.6% to 60.0% with a median of 24.1%. This study indicates a need for general practitioners to review their prescribing of hypnotic medicines for elderly people, paying particular attention to the duration of treatment.