This study compared the diagnostic performance of the Beck Depression Inventory (BDI) and the Geriatric Depression Scale (GDS) in correctly identifying depressed and nondepressed older people who are nursing home residents without cognitive disorders. At the usual cut-off scores of 10 and 11, sensitivity was 96.30 per cent for the BDI and 88.89 per cent for the GDS, while their specificity rates were 46.15 and 56.41 per cent respectively. Using Receiver Operating Characteristics (ROC) curves, the results obtained using these scales were compared with the diagnosis of psychiatric disorder according to the DSM-III-R. Contrary to the hypothesis, no difference was found between the area under the ROC for the BDI (Az = .87; SD = .04) and for the GDS (Az = .85; SD = .05). The exclusion of the somatic items, or the somatic factor, did not change the diagnostic performance of the BDI. Indices of temporal stability, concurrent validity and agreement with clinical diagnoses also confirmed the reliability and validity of these two scales for older people living in nursing homes.