Young and older adults experience benefits in attention and memory for emotional compared to neutral information, but this memory benefit is greatly diminished in Alzheimer's disease (AD). Little is known about whether this impairment arises early or late in the time course between healthy aging and AD. This study compared memory for positive, negative, and neutral items with neutral backgrounds between patients with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) and healthy older adults. We also used a divided attention condition in older adults as a possible model for the deficits observed in MCI patients. Results showed a similar pattern of selective memory for emotional items while forgetting their backgrounds in older adults and MCI patients, but MCI patients had poorer memory overall. Dividing attention during encoding disproportionately reduced memory for backgrounds (versus items) relative to a full attention condition. Participants performing in the lower half on the divided attention task qualitatively and quantitatively mirrored the results in MCI patients. Exploratory analyses comparing lower- and higher-performing MCI patients showed that only higher-performing MCI patients had the characteristic scene memory pattern observed in healthy older adults. Together, these results suggest that the effects of emotion on memory are relatively well preserved for patients with MCI, although emotional memory patterns may start to be altered once memory deficits become more pronounced.