During the past century, long-term care in the United States has evolved through five cycles of development, each lasting approximately twenty years. Each, focusing on distinct concerns, produced unintended consequences. Each also added a layer to an accumulation of contradictory approaches--a patchwork system now pushed to the breaking point by increasing needs and financial pressures. Future policies must achieve a better synthesis of approaches inherited from the past, while addressing their unintended consequences. Foremost must be assuring access to essential care, delivery of high-quality services in an increasingly deinstitutionalized system, and a reduction in social and economic disparities.