Participatory approaches are a popular and entrenched strategy in community development, yet a number of unresolved issues and tensions persist regarding the definition, rationales, outcomes and ethics of participation. Despite its popularity there are relatively few examples of participatory projects with older people or in institutional settings so their potential with this group is poorly understood. This case study presents some of the practical and ethical challenges that arose over the course of a participatory project that aimed to analyse and improve quality of life in a residential home for older people in Guyana. Through a qualitative process evaluation it examines the degree of participation achieved, the determinants of the participatory process, the benefits the approach brought and the ethical dilemmas encountered. Although the degree of participation achieved was limited, beneficial outcomes were observed, notably the selection of appropriate and desirable interventions and the effect on the residents themselves, who valued their part in the project. The participatory process was unpredictable and complex, however, and key determinants of it included the organizational dynamics of the home and the skills, actions and attitudes of the researcher. Adopting a participatory approach brought valuable benefits in a residential home, but others adopting the approach should ensure they critically consider at the outset the ethical and practical dilemmas the setting and approach may produce and have realistic expectations of participation.