Autonomy is an important concept because it brings dignity to peoples’ lives, regardless of physical circumstances. The United Nations (UN) Madrid International Plan of Action on Ageing emphasises the need to include older adults in autonomous decision-making processes. However, many older people living in residential care find that their autonomy is curtailed. This is largely because autonomy for older people is poorly understood, and hence, nurses working with older people need to become clear about what autonomy is and how it can be facilitated. In this, the first of three papers, the literature is reviewed specifically to establish the meaning of autonomy for older people in residential care as opposed to autonomy in a wider context. This important distinction may help nurses working with older people to begin to facilitate autonomy more effectively.