What Do We Owe Our Parents? For Some, the Answer Isn’t Easy

An illustration of a couple embracing in a garden.

Illustration: Neil Webb/Getty Images

Should we financially and emotionally support our fathers and mothers even when they don’t keep their side of the bargain? Then does the Fifth Commandment still apply?

Just before midnight on Dec. 17, 2017, Julia Fraser*, 51, a managing partner at a major Toronto P.R. firm, was woken by an urgent call from the Caribbean, where she had spent her early childhood. Fraser’s mother, who had just turned 80, had suffered a stroke. By the time Fraser reached her, it was apparent that something had changed dramatically. Her mother had suffered partial paralysis from the stroke and, more worrisome, what the doctors described as a “seizure of dementia.”

Up to this point, her mother had been living in her own apartment, largely subsidized by Fraser with some minor help from her two younger sisters, both of whom were living in the U.S. But now, until a nursing home could be found, Fraser had to arrange for round-the-clock care at her expense and enlist her mother’s sister to co-ordinate the care. Her father was alive and healthy, but he had been separated from her mother for more than three decades and lived in a seaside apartment on another island, which Fraser was also partially paying for. The rub, as Fraser saw it, feeling guilty as she did, was that both her parents had been successful professionals, her father a landowner, her mother as an executive for non-profit organizations. But they had made virtually no arrangements for their old age. To complicate matters, pension infrastructure in the country, which had little social net, was not much help.

“In Canada,” Fraser says, “parents either expect to take care of themselves or, as in many immigrant families, they still expect to end up living in the same house with their kids. But it’s planned for. Because of our family dysfunction, we hadn’t talked about any of these issues. Communication didn’t take place. The rules weren’t established.”

In Toronto, in her single woman’s condo, Fraser looked at the pull-out couch in her living room and tried to imagine her father sleeping there, a move that would at least lessen the financial burden. But back home, she reminded herself, her father had a massive social support system, his church in particular. Not to mention the fact that his condo was in a true “blue-zone” area, where he could swim in the ocean every day and walk on the beach. She wasn’t sure his health would hold up in a Toronto high rise. Besides, she thought, if she called him to broach the subject, he would probably just end up asking her for more money. “Every time we talk, after asking about me, it’s continually ‘Can you send me this much?’ So I feel resentment and then I feel more guilt for being resentful. I’m guilty talking like this right now.”

At about the same time that Julia Fraser stood gazing at her convertible couch, Noah Lerner*, a 45-year-old lawyer who lived in Markham, just north of Toronto, was looking at the cellphone in his hand, which was ringing again. It was his father calling, and Lerner knew that it was about money. The call would be affectionate and bantering, but the subtext would be an unpaid rent instalment or a bank loan payment or money for Lerner’s stepmother (his parents had been divorced since he was 10) to take a trip to Florida. The rub for Lerner was that his father, also a lawyer, in litigation, had made half a million dollars a year or the equivalent for the past 40 years. But he was also a gambling addict and had blown it all and more. Although he was still practising law, the government was garnisheeing 90 per cent of his earnings to pay overdue tax bills, which stood in the hundreds of thousands of dollars range.

“He’s the most generous man in the world,” Lerner says. “He’ll literally give you the shirt off his back. But he owns nothing. When he had a condo, he rented it. Now he rents an apartment. At any given moment, he’s a month away from being homeless.” Lerner has been getting these calls from his father since his mid-30s, when he first started to make “decent” money. He has tried to cut his father off more than once but he could never do it completely. “You see a way of getting your parent out of trouble. He’s embarrassed to ask, you’re embarrassed to give. But, you know, it’s your parent. It’s your dad.”

What do we owe our parents? That’s a hard enough question to answer when the parents in question have acted like parents, been responsible, provided for themselves. What about parents who have been irresponsible, financially or even emotionally, who haven’t kept up their side of the deal? Is the Fifth Commandment operative regardless? Should filial duty be blind, even when it imposes unreasonable pressure and stress on adult children?

A recent legal decision in Canada seems to answer the question with a qualified “no.” In 2011, a 73-year-old British Columbia resident named Shirley Anderson sued her four adult children, whom she had abandoned when they were teenagers, for monetary support. In 2013, a B.C. judge found against her, citing both her children’s modest incomes and her own failure to parent them in “any meaningful way.” The Anderson children, the judge said, owed their mother nothing.

But the situations of both Fraser and Lerner are substantially different from that of Anderson’s four children. Their incomes are not modest, and neither is estranged from their parents, who, although they may have abandoned each other to some extent, would never have thought of abandoning their children. No one is suing anyone here. Fraser’s and Lerner’s dilemma is novel and inevitable; they’re caught up in a cultural evolution that for some middle- and even upper-middle-class adult children is now approaching a breaking point.

Before 1960, it was fairly common in Canadian families for aging grandparents to be living with their adult children — either in their children’s home or, less frequently, in the original family home. Since then, the number of older Canadians who live on their own, married or single, has risen steadily. Close to the turn of the millennium, an average of only five per cent of care recipients were moving in with caregivers (usually adult children). Today, that percentage is even lower. The blended generation model has been replaced by the retirement home-nursing home model. If the older generation has set aside savings, the onus on the children is largely managerial. For a lot of families, this can be stressful enough. If the older generation owns nothing, the burden for the children is financial as well, with one child – increasingly an older daughter these days – making most of the financial sacrifice. The new dynamic can’t really be called parent caregiving; it’s more parenting one’s parents, reverse-parenting as it were.

“My mother’s living in a hotel owned by her sister now,” says Julia Fraser. “The full-time caregivers are costing us about about $1,600 Canadian a month.” One of her siblings has temporarily moved there from the States to assist with the caregiving but, as that sister is out of work giving her the time, Fraser is helping her out financially, too, incurring more debt.

Noah Lerner’s guilt manifests itself in a way that sounds more flamboyant and more compliant at the same time. “My father’s attitude to money is actually fascinating,” he says. “It’s a combination of Marxism and the Mob. I think he actually sees money as one big pool in the family, which everyone is
entitled to, regardless of who makes it. If you have a big score, you give everyone a taste. These days he’s doing most of the tasting. We have RRSPs for our kids and, at one point, my father needed $50,000 for a CRA debt, and I was actually considering cashing one of our RRSPs to do it. I might have done it if my wife hadn’t stopped me.”

An illustration of a man, crossed arms, with his head in a cloud.
(Illustration: Neil Webb/Getty Images)

Not just guilt and resentment but pride plays a big role in the transactional rulebooks imposed on both Fraser and Lerner by their parents. Six years ago, Fraser stopped going home for her father’s birthday because he kept inviting large groups of friends out to elaborate restaurant celebrations so he could show off his successful executive daughter to them — who was, of course, then expected to pay the bill. “I’d put $1,000 on my credit card for dinner, and then in the car on the way to the airport, he’d ask me for a thousand more to tide him over. I was thinking of telling him how upset I was at his taking things so for granted. I wanted to ask him if he thought I walked on streets of gold. But he’s very tender-hearted and he’s old and he would have cried. So instead I just stopped going home.”

Noah Lerner, for his part, thinks the little wise-guy dance his father does when he asks for a “loan” is motivated by inverted pride — embarrassment at having to ask at all. To spare him the stigma, Lerner used to agree quickly to the loan
requests and to pay, as his father always requested, in cash. He confided this one day to a colleague at his firm, who looked at him like he was crazy. “You never give cash to a gambler,” he said. “That’s like giving heroin to an addict. Write him a cheque for the amount. Better still, write a cheque to whoever he owes the money to.” Lerner follows this rule now, as well as the mantra promoted by his wife: “It’s our kids’ money, not my father’s.”

What do we owe our parents? Look to the East. In 2013, the Chinese government passed a law decreeing that henceforth adult children had to visit their aging parents regularly or face fines and possible jail sentences. Children were to respond to their parents’ “spiritual needs” and “never neglect or snub elderly people.” If children lived far away, they were to “go home often.” How effective the law has been might be reflected in the notice an 85-year-old grandfather named Han Zicheng taped to a bus shelter in his Tianjin neighbourhood in December 2017. “Lonely old man in his 80s,” the note read. “Strong-bodied. Can shop, cook and take care of himself. No chronic illness… I won’t go to a nursing home. My hope is that a kind-hearted person or family will adopt me, nourish me through my old age and bury my body when I’m dead.”

If all the adult children in China were like Julia Fraser and Noah Lerner, neither the 2013 Visit-Your-Parents law nor Han Zicheng’s note would have been necessary. Fraser and Lerner are devoted, loving children with very active consciences. By most reasonable criteria, they’re exemplary children, but they’re not saints. If you want to see an example of saintly filial sacrifice in
action, you could do worse than to check out the first season of the TV series 9-1-1. A show about first responders in Los Angeles, 9-1-1 is a show Julia Fraser never misses, even though it makes her feel bad. Possibly because it makes her feel bad.

“A lead character was an emergency response operator, a 911 operator named Abby Clarke, played by Connie Britton. Abby’s mother has Alzheimer’s, and now she’s living in her daughter’s living room. Abby wanted to do this for her mother, but now she has no life of her own. But the thing is it’s not driving her crazy. She’s just lovely, and her mother is so cute, and the caregiver they’ve hired is, of course, wonderful. It’s totally sanitized but irresistible. That’s why it makes me — and probably other people like me — feel so bad. It makes you feel guilty for not trying to take that on yourself.”

An illustration of a couple sitting outside drinking wine.
Illustration: Neil Webb/Getty Images

9-1-1 is TV’s version of reverse parenting, airbrushed, with commercial breaks. The reverse parenting Julia Fraser and Noah Lerner are engaged in is more ragged and unrelenting. Neither of them know how their situations will end. Or when. In 1960, when a hefty percentage of Canadian grandparents could be found living with their adult children, average life expectancy was 70. Today, when blended generational living is rare, the average life expectancy is 82, and more people than ever are living into their 90s.

“The silver lining with my dad,” says Noah Lerner, “is that he’s still able to work. And in the best-case scenario, he’ll work until he dies. Because if it gets to the point where he can’t physically manage to keep working, it’ll be a whole different ballgame. When he stops working, I don’t know what will happen.”
He thinks for a moment. “We do have a basement that we haven’t renovated. But we could renovate it …”

What do we owe our parents? Look to the Fifth Commandment. Most of us know the first line of the commandment: “Honour thy father and thy mother.” What not everyone knows, though, is that the Fifth happens to be one of only two commandments that are positive as opposed to negative, that tell us what we “shall do” as opposed to what we “shall not do.” And it’s the only commandment that comes with a reward for compliance.

The reward? Long life.

A version of this article appeared in the June 2019 issue with the headline, “What Do We Owe Our Parents?” p. 54-60.