Abstract Background Older adults are more susceptible to water imbalance and ensuring they drink sufficiently is a complex and challenging issue for nurses. The factors that promote adequate hydration and the barriers which prevent older people from drinking are not well understood. Objective This study aimed to understand the complexity of issues associated with the hydration and hydration care of older people. Design A qualitative study using multiple methods. Settings Two healthcare sites providing care for older people in the South West of England: a hospital ward in a major hospital and a care home providing personal and nursing care. Participants Twenty-one older people aged 68–96 years, were recruited to the study from the hospital ward and care home. The inclusion criteria for older people to participate were men or women aged 65 years and over and the exclusion criteria were being unable to provide informed consent, or being too ill or distressed to take part in the study. The staff participants of nurses and health care assistants totalled 21. The inclusion criterion for staff was any nurse or health care assistant providing hydration care. Seven friends or relatives participated by making anonymous comments via a suggestion box available to all friends and relatives. Methods Data were collected via interviews with older people, focus group discussions involving staff, suggestion box comments made by friends and relatives and twelve hours observation of hydration practice. The data were analysed using thematic analysis. Results Health professionals successfully employed several strategies to promote drinking including verbal prompting, offering choice, placing drinks in older people's hands and assisting with drinking. Older people revealed their experience of drinking was diminished by a variety of factors including a limited aesthetic experience and a focus on fluid consumption rather than on drinking as a pleasurable and social experience. Conclusion The rich and varied dimensions usually associated with drinking were lacking and the role of drinking beverages to promote social interaction was underplayed in both settings. Hydration practice which supports the individual needs of older people is complex and goes beyond simply ensuring the consumption of adequate fluids.