Non-judgmental Ethics Sunday: Am I Obliged to Support My Elderly Mother?

November 20, 2016 by Joshua
in Ethicist, Nonjudgment

Continuing my series of responses to the New York Times’, The Ethicist, without imposing values, here is my take on today’s post, “Am I Obliged to Support My Elderly Mother?


I recently graduated from college — the first person in my family to do so — and am trying to make a life for myself in New York. My father passed away several months ago, and my mother, who is in her 70s, is incapable of financial independence. She has never been financially responsible, and now the burden has fallen on my shoulders, because she has no family and I’m an only child. In my view, she lives way beyond her means; each time I suggest that she cut out a few expenses (fewer trips to the beauty parlor, shopping at a discount market), she breaks down and often lashes out at me. I fear that if I continue to support her, I’ll never be able to save enough money for my own future.

I’m very grateful for the sacrifices my mother made so that I could go to college and move to New York. I want to help her, but I’m not sure how to proceed in a financially and emotionally sustainable way. Am I obliged to support her? Matt, New York

My response: What do you mean by “incapable of financial independence”? If she’s not sane, I suggest you’d do better talking to a lawyer with relevant experience about what the law says than a newspaper columnist about abstract philosophy. Then do the same with people with experience caring for people in conditions like hers. They’ll give you advice based on experience to handle the situation. Don’t you prefer practical advice on what to do to philosophical opinions on obligation?

If she’s sane, I suggest you’d do better learning to lead others if you want to influence their behavior or leading yourself if you want to accept someone they way they are. I suggest looking at the issue as what to do rather than how to label things.

You’re going to do something. Do you prefer to do it effectively or ineffectively?

The New York Times response:

Whatever obligations come with the relationship between parent and child, they involve an element of mutuality, at least as long as both are mentally competent. If you’re contributing to your mother’s upkeep, she needs to bear in mind what it’s costing you and be reasonable about her expenses. Anyone who is lucky enough to have parents who live into a ripe old age has to deal with the difficult process in which parents, who had to accept their children’s independence from them, must now accept their own increasing dependence on their children. Some of your mother’s lashing-out no doubt reflects how hard this can be. The loss of autonomy is seldom well received.

But as you suggest, you have a life to build, and she’s burdening it. You’re going to have to tell her — perhaps in a loving letter, as conversations seem to end badly — what the terms are under which you can help support her. Because of your father’s death, this burden has fallen on you prematurely: It would have been more manageable if you were further along with your career. So take your own needs into account as well as hers. You mentioned the sacrifices your mother made for you. She made them because she wanted you to live a better life. Don’t let her sacrifices be for nothing.

My companion and I recently bought a house from a friend, “Jill.” When I was doing some cleaning, I found an envelope at the back of a closet, where it had been obscured by old tools. I opened the envelope to see if it was something I should send to Jill or someone who lived in the house with her. It turned out to be a handwritten letter dated 20 years ago and addressed not to Jill but “To the mother of my unborn child.” Glancing at the first page I saw it was a love letter pledging undying commitment. I stopped reading because it seemed really personal, although I looked at the signature so I could tell my friend who it was from.

I wrote to Jill asking if she would share the recipient’s address so I could send her the old letter. After a few days, Jill wrote back to say that the relationship between the letter-writer and the recipient had ended very badly — but that their daughter, “Esther,” wanted the letter. The daughter was a Facebook friend of Jill’s, so I looked at her profile and found that she is an 18-year-old high-school senior.

At that point I started to worry about sending Esther the letter, and I read it through. In addition to talking about the writer’s eternal love, it also discussed the couple’s physical relationship. Given the date of the letter and Esther’s apparent age, I am guessing that the “unborn child” is likely not Esther. I now feel in over my head. I am not sure that Esther is entitled to see a letter that was intended for another’s eyes and that may well open a can of worms.

It seems I have three choices: send the letter to Esther, send it to Jill and let her decide what to do with it or put it in the recycling bin. What should I have done when I found the letter, and what is the right thing to do with it now? Name Withheld

My response: What should you have done doesn’t change that you can’t change the past. The more relevant question, I suggest, is what you will do differently in similar future situations, but you can’t tell the details of them either. Instead of second-guessing yourself, accepting that you can’t change the past and instead focusing on what you can do now will probably help you more.

The biggest issue I see is your feeling in over your head. I would work on your emotional skills. I would use this situation as an opportunity to develop emotional skills in resilience and staying happy or whatever emotion you want despite outside circumstances.

I expect that when you’ve identified and overcome the feelings of obligation or whatever you’re feeling, the situation will seem more manageable.

The New York Times response:

You have gotten into this difficulty by ignoring the basics. Letters should be sent to the people to whom they’re addressed. (The “intellectual property” belongs to the sender, but that’s irrelevant in this case.) Jill has no moral rights to the letter. Nor do you. And nor does Esther. If Jill won’t let you do the right thing, the next best option is the recycling bin.

My dermatologist refuses to charge my wife or me for treatment and medicine at his clinic even though I have insisted on paying. He tells me not to mention it — ever again. I’ve already visited his clinic three times this summer, and my wife has had one appointment. There is socialized health care in our country, but his clinic’s fees are 100 percent out of pocket, as his services are considered supplementary.

I tutor his high-school-age child, and I’ve been tutoring her on and off for about 10 years. She was recently admitted to one of the best high schools in the area, and he believes I helped her get in.

Should I insist on giving them a discount or free classes because he has been giving us free treatment? I’m sure he’ll balk at that and push a tuition envelope in my bag. Of course, a doctor and a tutor aren’t even in the same income bracket, so we’re clearly both thinking that too. Charles, Taiwan

My response: Relationships work like this. There are no clear rules for many parts of them. How you behave affects how it develops. Enjoy the interaction, do your best, and learn.

I would look at it like this. When you first start playing the piano, you learn scales, which you learn fastest by following specific rules: which keys to hit in which order, how hard, how fast, and so on. There are rules with right and wrong ways of playing if your goal is to learn certain styles of music. The more advanced you get, the more rules defining right and wrong get replaced with you expressing your emotions by choosing to play your way.

By the time you’re married, I would think you’re ready to advance from asking others what you should do in favor of developing your own authentic voice in interacting with others. You’ll make mistakes, but how else do you learn? Do you want to write the New York Times every time you face a social or emotional challenge?

My advice: Instead of asking third parties what you should do, take a risk. Take responsibility for your actions. See what happens. Learn by doing. Develop your independence. Grow. Own your failures when they happen and mature through them.

The New York Times response:

Congratulations on living in a country with universal health care coverage for serious conditions. True, your case reveals a possible shortcoming of such systems, which is that the state gets to decide what’s serious and that many people won’t have private insurance to cover the rest. But you have lucked out. You and your wife have noncovered conditions that need medical attention, and because your relationship with the dermatologist isn’t simply that of patient and doctor, he has chosen to express his gratitude to you by not sending a bill. Refusing to accept money for his daughter’s tuition will both require more discussion of the topic he’s asked you not to raise and look a little ungrateful.

What’s the downside of just saying thank you? You point out that he earns more than you do. So maybe your concern is that, in his generosity, he’s drawing attention to his greater wealth and so not treating you as an equal. In refusing to accept his charity — as you see it — you assert your equality. If that’s indeed how you regard the situation, you’re the best judge of how to balance the financial advantages of accepting against the self-respect you gain by refusing. On the other hand, I doubt the consultation (and the meds) that he’s comping you represent much of a sacrifice for him. And sometimes the most generous thing you can do is to accept someone’s gift.

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