Both of my parents were addicts throughout my childhood. I was the stereotypical “hero child” in this dysfunction. In spite of their issues, they did work. I had a roof over my head, clothes to wear and food to eat, though cooking and keeping house were my problems from earliest memory. They showed up a couple times per week, but I was basically feral.
Neighbors offered the majority of the parenting and care that I received. But there were good times, and I do love my parents. Dad has passed away, but Mom is still living. She is still sober but has substituted shopping and gambling for substance abuse. She maintains an addict’s sense of entitlement and lack of boundaries.
She should have been financially stable. She had a house that was paid for, a pension, Social Security, and several significant inheritances for a nest egg. However, a lifetime of bad decisions have devastated her physical and financial health. She has lost her assets, is deeply in debt and feeling her age. She is quickly losing her ability to live independently.
“‘A lifetime of bad decisions have devastated her physical and financial health.’”
I have worked hard to provide a comfortable life for my family and been very careful not to repeat the mistakes that my parents made. I work with an investment broker and live well within my means. My life is peaceful and stable. I am certainly not wealthy, but there is enough to take care of our needs and have a few extras too. Bringing my mother into my home would turn the place into a war zone.
She is looking for an enabler and does all she can to take advantage. Giving her money would be throwing cash into a black hole. She cannot be trusted to use gifts for necessities, but instead fritters it away and comes back to demand more. She will not accept gifts of life necessities unless they come with a receipt.
But she is my mother. I do care about her, and don’t want to see anything bad happen to her. I realize that she is beyond the possibility of repairing the damage she has done to her life and finances due to age and debility, even if she could get her current addiction under control, and I feel that I do have an ethical responsibility here.
So what do I owe my troubled and challenging parent, and how can I make the help that I give actually helpful?
A Son Torn
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You owe her the truth: that you love her and support her, and that you will take steps to help her help herself.
Here’s what you don’t owe her: a lifetime where your finances are drained, and her chaotic choices become your family’s responsibility. You are not a prisoner of the past, nor are you a hostage to your mother.
You can’t live life for your mom, enable her by funding her mistakes, or change someone who is not willing or able to do the work to restore balance and stability to their life. But you can bring a healthy balance to your relationship with her.
That doesn’t mean you can’t or should not offer her your help, but it should be made clear that you are not there to simply pay off her bills, and/or facilitate her behavior. You and your mother could benefit from counseling, both together and apart.
There are 12-step programs for people who suffer from gambling problems, and also for people like yourself who have been given the role of caretaker at a very young age.
You need a safe, secure space where you can offer some of your own experiences of what it was like growing up, so she can fully realize where you are in your life now, and how trust is something that needs to be rebuilt once it is broken.
There are treatment, support groups and other resources to help people with compulsive gambling and spending, and supporting her financially will not necessarily make the problem go away.
Review her Social Security benefits, including Supplemental Security Income, and Medicare and/or Medicaid benefits depending on her eligibility. Contact the Administration on Aging, and seek guidance on the Americans With Disabilities Act.
“‘It should be made clear that you are not there to pay off her bills.’”
In addition to trying to get her paperwork straight, you can help outline a plan of action for her, and help her look for low-income or affordable housing. This government site also lists the 15,000-plus nursing homes nationwide that participate in Medicare and Medicaid.
My colleague Meera Jagannathan has outlined tips for searching for appropriate long-term care for elderly family members, assessing facilities’ track record of any abuse or neglect, and spotting telltale signs of a badly managed facility, such as high staff turnover.
If your mother truly wants help, she needs to relinquish at least some of the control she has over her credit-card and bank accounts. You don’t ever have to feel guilty about living your own life, building healthy boundaries with problematic family members, and putting your needs first.
I have one note of caution. Your mother may have replaced drugs and alcohol with gambling and overspending. This is all part of the same disease that has taken a toll on her life, and on the lives of those who care for her.
Your mother’s sense of entitlement and lack of boundaries, as you put it, do not dictate your own boundaries, or those for your family. She was not there for you growing up, and ultimately you have a right to live your own life, free from her endless source of emotional and financial problems.
There is a long road ahead, but your mother — more than anyone in this story — needs to do the work. According to the American Psychiatric Association: “For some people gambling becomes an addiction — the effects they get from gambling are similar to effects someone with alcoholism gets from alcohol.”
“People with gambling disorder often hide their behavior. They may lie to family members and others to cover up their behavior and may turn to others for help with financial problems. Some gamblers are seeking excitement or action in gambling, others are looking more for escape or numbing,” it adds.
Until your mother deals with the source of the her addictive and self-destructive behavior and takes responsibility for her decisions, it will continue to create havoc for her and, unfortunately, those around her. I hope that she deals with her demons, and you both find a healthy place where you can be there for her.
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Quentin Fottrell is MarketWatch’s Managing Editor-Personal Finance and The Moneyist columnist. You can follow him on Twitter @quantanamo.