The "postcode lottery" in social care for the elderly must be addressed to stop some people using up their life savings to pay for it, a charity says.
Nobody should be forced to sell their home to fund care, the charity says
Everyone over 65 who needs assistance is being funded £25,000 by means of informal and private care to plug a shortfall, Counsel and Care calculates.
Nearly two million of these people receive no funded care whatsoever.
The charity has urged the government to standardise criteria so everyone can expect the same level of assistance.
It accepts that individuals will have to pay for certain elements of care, but argues that people with modest savings are being penalised as a result of stringent means testing.
Homeowners should also be offered the option of releasing equity in their property, rather than being forced to sell it to fund long term care, the charity says.
A survey of 2,272 callers to the charity's advice line revealed a "crisis of confidence" in the services available, said Stephen Burke, chief executive of Counsel and Care.
"There is a real frustration amongst older people and their carers with the lack of fairness and clarity over who is actually eligible for care," he said.
"Widespread confusion is also rife on issues like self-funding, and there is a huge gap in information about local services."
Three out of four local authorities now only provide care to those whose needs are "critical" or "substantial", the charity notes.
But the definition of what qualifies as "substantial", for instance, can differ across the country.
In this way, the charity says, someone who qualified for help when they lived in one area may find they receive nothing when they move elsewhere.
Help The Aged agreed with many of the report's assertions.
"The social care system needs to be more straightforward," said Elizabeth McLennan, social care policy officer.
"Older people need to know what they are entitled to, and when, and clear advice must be given so people know what plans they have to make and how to make them."
A Green Paper is due to be published later this year on the future of social care.
Last month, the government announced a new way of providing social care called Putting People First.
Under this scheme, recipients can spend the money allocated for their care on the services they choose, rather than being told which services they will be receiving.
Many organisations have welcomed the shift, although there are concerns as to whether the most vulnerable are best placed to make sometimes complicated decisions about purchasing care.
Commenting on the Counsel and Care report, Health Minister Ivan Lewis said: "The government agrees that 2008 will be a landmark year in our response to the demographic challenges presented by an aging society.
The public, he said, would be consulted in advance of the green paper, "which will identify options for a reformed social care funding system, which will be both fair and sustainable for the long term".
Martin Green, of the English Community Care Association, said: "The government's announcement of a Green paper on the funding of social care is welcomed because the inequalities and under-funding in the current system have to be addressed as a matter of urgency."
Andrew Chidgey, of the Alzheimer's Society, said increasing numbers of people with dementia and their families were being forced to fund care in the community themselves.
He said: "They are willing to make a contribution toward the cost of care but the current arrangement often leaves them feeling as if they are being ransacked to prop up a failing system."