Maintaining sick and elderly people at home, particularly as they approach the end of life, is a long-established challenge for health and social care services. Over the past 30 years palliative care providers have attempted a variety of innovations in this area. We report on a descriptive study of seven pilot Macmillan Carers Schemes in England. The schemes sought to provide practical and emotional help to cancer patients and families living in their own homes. Data are available on 624 referrals to the schemes over a 1-year period. Emphasizing comparisons between schemes, we report on reasons for and sources of referral, services offered, number and duration of visits and tasks undertaken. We consider the views of informal carers who made use of the service, the perceptions of Macmillan carers themselves, and we compare financial costs of schemes. It is concluded that the schemes have the potential for further development but face problems, which reflect on their borderline position between ‘health’ and ‘social care’. Current policy changes may be beneficial to the schemes in this respect.