Sage Advice: Bitterly Caring for Impoverished Parents

By Amy Dickinson | January 9th, 2019

How much do we owe our parents who gave us nothing?

Woman looking at printout on calculator, stressed

Dear Amy: My parents were raised dirt-poor. They popped out baby after baby even though they couldn’t afford to feed or properly house us. My folks had numerous opportunities to improve our lot in life and passed them all over. Dad was (and is) a coward when it comes to any sort of change – good or bad.

I remember spending many winter nights as a child sobbing under my scavenged blanket because I was hungry and freezing because our wood stove had gone cold.

I started working at 12 with my parents’ enthusiastic “encouragement” and almost every penny went toward groceries. I’m the oldest and they drilled in that it was my responsibility.

I worked all through high school, worked two jobs to put myself through college, and got a professional job that paid all my bills and some to spare. Thirty years later, I’m married, and our house and cars are paid off. Though we’re far from rich, we have everything we need.

Now in their 70s, my parents have nothing. The shack I was raised in was condemned and my husband and I put them up in an apartment rather than see them homeless.

They constantly ask for money for necessities, then spend it on (what I consider) really stupid purchases. (My mother still thinks her massive collection of Beanie Babies will be worth millions someday.)

I’m bitter and resentful. Two of my siblings married rich. The others followed in our parents’ footsteps and live hand to mouth.

If we cut my parents off, they’ll have no place to go. My conscience can’t take it.

If we continue as we are, our own retirement is at risk.

My husband has always supported my overdeveloped sense of responsibility, but I know he’s frustrated and a little angry, too. What do we do?

– Not a Retirement Fund

Dear Funders: I understand your conflicted feelings about your parents, who didn’t provide adequately for their children, but are now basically shameless (you feel) in terms of their expectations.

You need to wean your parents away from being your sole responsibility. Your local Office on Aging should be a great resource for information on services available for low-income seniors. Your folks will likely qualify for subsidized housing, SNAP (food stamps), heating assistance and other programs designed to keep them safe.

You should decide on an amount you are able/willing to spend on them each month, and – that’s it. If you provide adequately and they have subsidized supplemental programs and yet still want more, you can send them in good conscience to one of their other children.

You survived your very tough upbringing, and your grit is commendable – although it is tinged with anger.

Your next heavy lift will be to work your way toward forgiveness. Forgiving them will liberate you.

In the tradition of the great personal advice columnists, Chicago Tribune’s Amy Dickinson is a plainspoken straight shooter who relates to readers of all ages. She answers personal questions by addressing issues from both her head and her heart. A solid reporter, Dickinson researches her topics to provide readers with informed opinions and answers. Ask Amy, P.O. Box 194, Freeville, NY 13068

© 2019 by Amy Dickinson

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