Population ageing and increasing prevalence of chronic diseases and their consequences, changes in family structure and a decrease in the potential pool of family care, increase the need for formal long-term care for older adults in Mexico, and the need to understand the experiences of informal care-givers and how this impacts their social, family and personal conditions. This study investigates the experience of informal care-givers of dependent older adults using a cross-sectional qualitative study with an ethnographic focus. Thematic analysis was performed. The study comprised 48 semi-structured interviews with care-givers of dependent older adults who are beneficiaries of an in-home medical programme in Mexico City. The average age of care-givers was 54.7 years (standard deviation = 13.1, range = 24–86) and 75 per cent (36) were women. Results show care-giving experiences are diverse and complex, and profoundly affect the care-giver's life in terms of emotional burden, health deterioration and adverse life conditions due to economic deprivation. They also revealed key aspects such as the need to improve communication between care-givers and health-care personnel, the need for training about specific care needs and opportunity costs incurred. This information can serve as a basis for generating support strategies that may be integrated into the in-home programme. It is essential to promote actions that consider the ‘dependent older adult–informal care-giver’ dyad, and that aim to reduce the care-giving burden.