Abstract Background Influenza is a common and serious public health problem among the elderly. The influenza vaccine is safe and effective. Methods The purpose of the study was to determine whether frequencies of receipt vary by race, age group, gender, and time (progress from 1995/1996 to 2000), and whether any racial differences remain in age groups covered by Medicare. Subjects were selected from the Health and Retirement Study (HRS) (12,652 Americans 50–61 years of age (1992–2000)) and the Asset and Health Dynamics Among the Oldest Old (AHEAD) survey (8,124 community-dwelling seniors aged 70+ years (1993–2000)). Using multivariate logistic regression, adjusting for potential confounders, we estimated the relationship between race, age group, gender, time and the main outcome measure, receipt of influenza vaccination in the last 2 years. Results There has been a clear increase in the unadjusted rates of receipt of influenza vaccination for all groups from 1995/1996 to 2000. However, the proportions immunized are 10–20% higher among White than among Black elderly, with no obvious narrowing of the racial gap from 1995/1996 to 2000. There is an increase in rates from age 50 to age 65. After age 70, the rate appears to plateau. In multivariate analyses, the racial difference remains after adjusting for a series of socioeconomic, health, and health care related variables. (HRS: OR = 0.63 (0.55–0.72), AHEAD: OR = 0.55 (0.44–0.66)) Conclusions There is much work left if the Healthy People 2010 goal of 90% of the elderly immunized against influenza annually is to be achieved. Close coordination between public health programs and clinical prevention efforts in primary care is necessary, but to be truly effective, these services must be culturally appropriate.