Our Responsibility for the Elderly

By Greg Baer M.D.

November 25, 2015

What is our responsibility to the older people among us, especially our parents and others who are related to us? There are many variations on this answer, but overall the answer is the same as to the question, What is our responsibility to other people?

We’re all responsible to be as loving as we reasonably can be to everyone around us. What does that mean, to be as loving as we reasonably can be?

Suppose my grandchildren come to visit for a week. They would want my attention 24/7, and if I “loved” them and gave them all the attention they wanted, I’d be thoroughly exhausted within the first day. I can’t afford to get physically or emotionally exhausted, because then I can’t be loving to them or anybody else, so when I get to about 85% of my physical or emotional limit—what I call as loving as I reasonably can be—I take a break. I just disappear upstairs, away from everybody until I get my head of steam back.

So how does this apply to loving our parents? What is our responsibility to our elderly parents? Before I offer an opinion on this subject, let me describe an extreme.

An  Example of Elder Care in China

Several years ago I was in mainland China presenting seminars on Real Love. As I was on a bus to the Beijing airport I saw a series of large murals—each maybe 8 feet high and 16 feet long, painted on concrete—along the road. The pictures were unusual, so I asked my guide what they signified.

He said they depicted The Twenty-four Paragons of Filial Piety, a series of stories about how children should properly love and respect their parents—written around 1300 A.D. by a disciple of Confucius. I pointed to one of the murals, and my guide told me the story.

An old man lived with his adult son, who was quite poor. In the middle of winter, the old man said he wanted fish for dinner. Of course there were no fish lying around, and there were none in the market, because it was the middle of the winter, and the river was frozen over.

What was the son to do? Why, make whatever sacrifice required to fill his father’s “request,” which was really a demand. So the son walked out onto the frozen river, took off his shirt, and laid down on the ice, until a hole melted in the ice. (You have to suspend the laws of physics and physiology here, because he would have frozen to death before the ice melted.) A carp jumped out of the hole into the arms of the son, who dutifully took it home to his father.

The father said he wanted the fish cooked in oil, which was nowhere to be found in the house. The son used a knife to make an incision in the side of his belly, removed some of his own body fat, and fried the fish in the melted oil.

This tale is told throughout China as a venerable example of xiaodao: the sacred duty of all children to respect, serve, and obey their parents. Is this the proper way to love our parents? Maybe, and not really. Our real responsibility is to love our parents as much as we CAN without being crushed under the weight of it.

In many cultures—the Chinese being just one—children ARE taught to be responsible for their parents. The reasoning of the parents often sounds like this:

We brought them into the world, so they (our children) owe us.

We supported our children, so they are now obligated to support us.

We do have a duty to be as loving as we CAN BE, but what does this look like practically? In part it depends on whether your parents have access to non-family care. Let’s examine the situations where this care is and is not available:

Situations Where Your Parents Have Access to Non-family Care

In a great many developed countries, older people have the means to provide their own daily and medical care, or a system exists to provide it:
Insurance policies
Retirement accounts
Pension funds
Government social programs

In such cases, older parents don’t REQUIRE the physical or financial assistance of their children, but do they have a right to ask for it? And if so, what are the obligations of the children?

Celia wrote to me and said, “My mother is one of the most critical, angry, and aggressive people I’ve ever known, to the point where I can’t be in the same room with her for more than a few minutes before I can feel my brain catching fire and my eyes filling with tears. I have been treated horribly by this woman so many times all through my childhood that her mere presence provokes a PTSD-like response. My fear then completely distracts me from any ability to be a loving wife or a parent to my two young children.

“The thing is, my mother has told me that when she gets older, she expects to move into my home, where I’ll be taking care of her. Before that happens, I’m pretty sure I would shoot myself. I can see this total train wreck coming from miles away, but I don’t know how to prevent it. Help!”

Our duty to love and serve must always be tempered by our ability. If bringing a parent into the house would crush us emotionally, how could that be a good thing? If Celia moved her mother into her home, she would be debilitated as an individual, which would then have a severely negative effect on her husband and children. Let’s do the emotional math together, with happiness rated as a 1 and unhappiness as a 0, for the sake of simplicity. We will assume that between now and the hypothetical move, no miracle occurs wherein Celia finds it easy to love her mother.

If Celia refuses to allow her mother to move in with her:
Celia’s mother = 0 (obvious, since a happy person wouldn’t be critical and angry)
Celia = 1
Celia’s husband = 1
Celia’s son = 1
Celia’s daughter = 1
Total score = 4

If Celia allows her mother to move in with her:
Celia’s mother = 0 (she won’t become genuinely happy moving in, just briefly satisfied)
Celia = 0
Celia’s husband = 0
Celia’s son = 0
Celia’s daughter = 0
Total score = 0

This is not a difficult decision. The entire family will suffer if Celia’s mother moves in, whereas at least four people have a good chance at happiness if Mother is taken care of elsewhere. And Celia can visit Mother with whatever regularity she chooses in the facility Mother chooses for her care.

Celia’s mother will not physically suffer or die because she can’t move in with her daughter. That is true in most developed countries, as mentioned earlier. The mechanisms for providing care vary from country to country, and from one situation to another, but the elderly are cared for.

Earlier I mentioned the reasoning of parents in justifying their demands of their children. I would suggest that this reasoning be modified as follows, for both parents and children:

  •  We as parents brought our children into the world, and we promised to love them. We had no right to bring our children into the world to love and support us. That would be called involuntary servitude.
  •  We as children have an obligation to learn to be as loving as possible to all people, including our parents. We are not obligated, however, to give people—including our parents—everything they want. Our greatest duty is to our spouse and children.

Throughout all the above, I make the assumption that we are involving our siblings as much as possible in supporting our parents.

What About the Parent’s Financial Decisions? 

Marilyn wrote to me: “Just the other day, my mother called to talk about how she had refinanced her house to get even more money to spend foolishly, which is something she has done all her life. She would be wealthy if she had just saved moderately instead of spending constantly. I tried to show her how she hadn’t been careful with her money, but she just got angry and hung up on me. It’s especially frustrating because I know she’ll run out of money and then come running to me. And when she gets old enough, she’ll expect me to rescue her.”

It can be frustrating to watch older parents make foolish financial choices, especially when we know that the consequences of their decisions might affect US. We get this powerful urge to help them avoid the pain that comes with making bad choices, but in the end, the Law of Choice still prevails. They have the right to make their own choices—even the really, really stupid ones.

Now, what happens if parents continue to be irresponsible, and they do run out of money? What should you do if they come to you for help? You can do what you would do with an irresponsible child. You offer suggestions about how they might cut back on their expenses so they can live within their income. They might have to sell their house and move into an apartment. They might have to cut WAY back on their spending. They won’t like these solutions, and you can’t make them do anything, but you CAN explain that if they want to keep their financial independence, these are their only choices.

All this advice is unneeded, of course, if you’re willing to support them for the rest of your life, but that would be foolish. Why? Because firmly attached to your parents’ right to choose is their responsibility to live with the CONSEQUENCES of the choices they make. So if they choose to spend all their money now, they have to live with having no money down the road, and you’d be insane to save them from the consequences of their own choices, no matter how loudly they complain.

That’s the problem with irresponsible people. They want to make their own choice, but then they want YOU to be responsible for the consequences. And you have to be prepared for that day. You have to be prepared NOT to feel guilty when you say “NO, mother/father, we can’t afford to support you in continuing to spend money you don’t have.” You are not responsible for rescuing them from the natural consequences of their decisions.

But then what happens when the day comes that your parents cannot take care of themselves physically and require outside help. Even then, the choice is always yours to make. You are not FORCED to do anything. If they have knowingly blown all their resources, you may choose to allow them to live in a facility that takes their Medicare and Social Security benefits—as would be the case in the United States—as full payment for their care. I’m not suggesting what you SHOULD do. I’m just saying that you have choices, and their choices don’t restrict yours. When you realize that you’re not being forced to do anything, you’ll feel less insistence about pushing them to make the financial decisions you think wise.

Throughout any situations, the most important thing you can give your parents is your unconditional acceptance and love. If you criticize their decisions, or feel irritated, they will feel your lack of acceptance, and then they can’t listen to anything you say anyway. Just love them, and at least you won’t continue to damage your relationship with them, as Marilyn did in the conversation with her mother above. As they feel your love, the day may come when they can listen to your advice. Whether they listen or not, they will benefit from your love, and you will be much happier yourself.

Situations where your parents don’t have access to non-family care

In many countries, older people have no guaranteed financial or medical support. In such cultures, it is often assumed that children have an absolute obligation to house and care for their  parents. But the basic guidelines for adult children—from the standpoint of Real Love—don’t change. You can offer only as much unconditional love as you have. When you try to give more than you have, everyone suffers.

George lived in a country where support for the elderly simply did not exist. He wrote to tell me that he had invited his mother to live with him, because she had become old enough that she couldn’t care for herself. He added—with considerable desperation—that all his life his mother had been critical to the point of humiliating, and demanding to the point of turning George into a virtual slave. He was at his wits’ end.

It appeared that George was stuck here. He had no siblings who were capable of helping him take care of his mother, so if he refused her—which was his strong desire—she would have died of neglect, either in her small rural hut or by the side of the road. He couldn’t live with that thought—mostly out of duty and obligation—so he took her into his home.

His choice was understandable, but I explained that he could still live by the guideline of not giving more than he had. How? He couldn’t limit the number of days he saw her—which would have been possible if she’d lived in a government facility—but he COULD limit HOW he interacted with her. How would this look?

George happily followed my instructions, because without them he would have cracked emotionally under the strain of living with her constant belittling and demeaning. He sat down with her and said, “Mother, I’m loving you the best I can, and while you’re here, I’ll continue to do my best to love you and physically care for you. But now you’re living in MY home, where I am responsible for the tone and feelings that exist here for my wife and children. I have learned that anything that is unloving—criticism, anger, humiliation—is very destructive to everyone in the home. So I don’t allow that in my home anymore. Before learning about unconditional love—or Real Love—I didn’t know it was possible to have that kind of love, but now I know, so I won’t live with anything less.”

“Now,” he continued with his mother, “what does this mean for you living with us? It means that if you even begin a sentence that is humiliating or critical, I will immediately stop you by raising my hand and saying, ‘Stop. If there is something you WANT, simply tell me. You can ASK me for what you want, but I will not listen to that critical tone or those critical words.’ If you continue criticizing or controlling, despite my asking you to stop, I will leave the room, ignore your demand or criticism, and stop talking to you until you can speak in a civil tone and make a request, NOT a demand or criticism.”

George’s mother resisted him at first, which was predictable. She was offended, demanded his respect and compliance, reminded him of everything she’d ever done for him, and more. But George refused to engage in any of that. He simply repeated what he would do, and more than once he left the room until she was willing to simply ask for what she wanted. Sometimes he granted her requests, and sometimes he chose not to. In the process, he was genuinely loving toward her, which is what mattered most.

We can all learn to be more loving, a commendable goal with everyone we interact with, including our parents. How that loving looks depends on people and circumstances.


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About the author 

Greg Baer, M.D.

I am the founder of The Real Love® Company, Inc, a non-profit organization. Following the sale of my successful ophthalmology practice I have dedicated the past 25 years to teaching people a remarkable process that replaces all of life's "crazy" with peace, confidence and meaning in various aspects of their personal lives, including parenting, marriages, the workplace and more.

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