by Adrian Browne
Ministers say they have open minds about how to close the funding gap
A "genuine debate" on how care services in Wales should be funded is being launched by the assembly government.
Wales has a larger elderly population than the rest of the UK, putting increasing strain on the care system.
The consultation will run in parallel with one in England, prompted by predictions services will face a £6bn funding gap across the UK in 20 years.
It will consider whether individuals, families or society should contribute more towards care costs in the future.
Questions will be asked, such as whether the care and support system should be the same for everybody or vary, according to circumstances or local priorities.
How best to strike a balance between targeting government resources to those least able to pay and having a system which encourages people to plan and save will also be investigated.
EXAMPLES OF CARE SERVICES
Meals on wheels
Home adaptations - such as grab rails and stair lifts
Housing support services - such as wardens
Benefits for disabled people
Residential care homes
Support for carers - including respite care
The demographic trends over the next decade are worrying policy makers around the world.
In Wales the population is projected to increase by about 5% to 3.14m.
But while the number of children is expected to drop by 6% over the period, the number of people aged 65 to 84 is set to rise by 24% and those over 85 by around 29%.
With older people making up an increasing section of the population, Welsh ministers also want to gauge opinion on a variety of possible new funding models, including, private insurance, a national equity release scheme, a partnership model, free personal care and social insurance.
A private insurance system might be run along similar lines to the healthcare system in the USA.
An equity release scheme could allow people to pay for their care needs with money raised after their death by proceeds from the sale of their home.
The partnership model, suggested by the charitable foundation Kings Fund, could involved people paying £1 towards the costs for every £2 the state provides.
Scotland provides free personal care services up to £216 per week for people aged 65 and over, but with means testing for accommodation and food costs.
The social insurance option is being pursued in Japan and Germany, and would involve a system similar to the way people in the UK pay National Insurance contributions to qualify for social security benefits.
All the options are potentially highly controversial.
Welsh Deputy Social Services Minister Gwenda Thomas said it was time to "think very carefully" about how the care system needed to change to ensure that future needs and demands are "appropriately met".
"What's important to remember is that the care system isn't something that only involves older people in society - nearly all of us will one day come into contact with the care system in one form or another," she said.
"It is therefore essential that as many people as possible - of all ages and backgrounds - join in the debate and have their say."
The consultation will include events in Cardiff and Llandudno in December and January, and will run until March 2009 when a Welsh "green paper" will be published, mapping out the assembly government's first thoughts and ideas, but without any firm proposals.
This document would then feed into the UK government's green paper published at Westminster.
However Welsh ministers are likely to want to retain as much flexibility as they can to adapt any new system to the needs in Wales.
Any changes are not expected to be made before 2011 at the very earliest.
Given the scale and complexity of a care system made up of devolved and non-devolved elements combined with tax, health and benefits issues and reforms could take much longer.