Returning home or moving to a more supportive setting upon discharge from inpatient health-care services can have a tremendous impact on the lives of older adults and their families. Institutional concerns with patient safety and expedience can overshadow health-care professionals' commitments to collaborative discharge planning. In light of many competing demands and agendas, it can be unclear what is driving discharge-planning processes and outcomes. This paper presents the results of a study examining discharge planning in an older adult rehabilitation unit in a Canadian urban setting. Using microethnographic case studies, we explored the perspectives of older adults, family members and health-care professionals. Drawing on concepts of relational autonomy to guide the analysis, we found that discourses of ageing-as-decline, beliefs privileging health-care professionals' expertise and conventions guiding discharge planning intersected to marginalise older adult patients in discharge-planning decision making. Discharge planning in the research setting was driven by norms of ‘protecting physical safety’ at the expense of older adults’ self-declared interests and values. Such practices resulted in frequent recommendations of 24-hour care, which have significant personal, social and financial implications for older adults and their families, and ultimately might undermine clients' or health-care systems' aims. The analysis revealed social, political and institutional biases that diminish the rights and autonomy of older adults.