OBJECTIVE: To describe the prevalence and content of long-term care facility policies regarding the use of life-sustaining treatments (cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), artificial hydration and nutrition, dialysis, antibiotics for life-threatening infections, transfer to acute care hospital) and advance directives in Canada. DESIGN: Cross-sectional mailed survey. SETTING: Canadian long-term care facilities with 25 beds or more listed in the 1991-92 Directory of Long Term Care Centres in Canada. Institutions listed as, "general hospitals,""psychiatric hospitals,""children's treatment centres,""group homes," or as purely residential facilities were excluded. PARTICIPANTS: Chief Executive Officers or their designates. MAIN OUTCOME MEASURES: Respondents' self-reports regarding the existence of life-sustaining treatment or advance directive policies and content analysis of the policies themselves. RESULTS: Of 1472 long-term care facilities, 1021 (69%) responded. Of these, 344 (34%) institutions had 397 policies regarding the use of life-sustaining treatments or advance directives. Three hundred twenty facilities (31%) had 349 do-not-resuscitate (DNR) policies (40% on CPR alone and 60% on CPR plus other life-sustaining treatments). Seventeen institutions (2%) each had one policy addressing life-sustaining treatments other than CPR, and 31 institutions (3%) each had one policy addressing advance directives. Of the 397 policies, 171 (43%) required routine discussion with all patients, 156 (39%) mentioned futility, 331 (83%) indicated that the competent patient had the right to make a decision about life-sustaining treatment, 265 (67%) indicated that the family of the incompetent patient had this right, 27 policies (7%) mentioned conflict resolution, 378 (95%) had an explicit requirement for recording the decision, 10 (3%) required explicit communication of the decision to the competent patient, 10 (3%) required such communication to the family of the incompetent patient, 260 (66%) required updating of the decision, and 213 (54%) mentioned rescinding or changing the decision. CONCLUSIONS: Only one-third of Canadian long-term care facilities have do-not-resuscitate policies, and even fewer have policies on advance directives or life-sustaining treatments other than CPR. The policies themselves could be improved by encouraging routine advance discussions, scrutinizing the use of the futility standard, stipulating procedures for conflict resolution, and explicitly requiring communication of the decision to competent patients or substitute decision makers of incompetent patients.