The elderly population is susceptible to haematological malignancies, and these elderly patients are intolerant to cytotoxic drugs. Therefore, the exploration of a safe and reliable strategy exclusive of chemotherapy is critical in improving the prognosis of elderly patients with haematological malignancies. We evaluated the safety and the efficacy of autologous cytokine-induced killer (CIK) cells combined with recombinant human interleukin 2 (rhIL-2) in the treatment of haematological malignancies in elderly patients. Peripheral blood mononuclear cells were isolated from 20 elderly patients with haematological malignancies, then augmented by priming with interferon gamma, rhIL-2 and CD3 monoclonal antibody. The autologous CIK cells (2–3 × 109) were transfused back to patients, followed by a subcutaneous injection of IL-2 (1 mU/day) for 10 consecutive days. The regimen was repeated every 4 weeks. The host cellular immune function, tumour-related biological parameters, imaging characteristics, disease condition, quality of life and survival time were assessed. Fourteen patients received 8 cycles of transfusion and 6 received 4 cycles. No adverse effects were observed. The percentages of CD3+, CD3+CD8+ and CD3+CD56+ cells were significantly increased (p < 0.05), and the levels of serum β2 microglobulin and lactate dehydrogenase (LDH) were markedly decreased (p < 0.05) after autologous CIK cell transfusion. Cancer-related symptoms were profoundly alleviated, as demonstrated by the improved quality of life (p < 0.01). Complete remission was observed in 11 patients, persistent partial remission in 7 patients and stable disease in 2 patients. At the end of follow-up, the mean survival time was 20 months. Transfusion with autologous CIK cells plus rhIL-2 treatment is safe and effective for treating haematological malignancies in elderly patients. Copyright © 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.