My father is in his early 70s and quite frail. He lives alone in a very large house in a wealthy area of London, and is very frugal, always complaining about having no money. My sister proposes we both give him £25 a week to help. But he pays £2,000 a year in storage costs for unwanted furniture and could easily earn money by letting out rooms so I resent giving him money. I earn quite a bit but I have a young family to support. Am I being unfair?
Yours sincerely, Robert
Just because your father's frail doesn't mean that he has to be treated as if he's an imbecile. And to be honest, I don't think it's a case of your being mean in refusing to give him money, but, rather, downright patronising to consider giving him any at all. Obviously, if the poor man were on his uppers, it would be quite correct to help him out to make his old age comfortable. But were you to give him money now, all you'd be doing is pandering to his self-centred lack of imagination, if, indeed, he is really asking for money, something that may be entirely in your sister's mind.
First of all I'd have a talk with your sister and discuss what you both feel he really needs when he says he's got no money. This is clearly not true – so perhaps he's trying to tell you he's lonely and wants more attention. Perhaps far better than £25 a week from you both would be a daily call and a weekly visit? You don't say how much you see him now, but money's often a metaphor for love, and before you start offering him cash – which might be taken as an insult – I'd try offering emotional support first.
Then you might question your sister's motives. Does she feel guilt about the way she's treated her father in the past? Is she unable to love him and suggesting cash instead? What does she think of the idea of your both suggesting he sells the furniture – which he's never going to see and neither of you want in the future – to save him cash? Frankly, it would be more sensible to spend money on gambling than to hoard old brown furniture, unless it is exquisite – in which case, why not either display it or sell it?
A lodger might be a good idea anyway – for your father to have company and someone to keep an eye on him as well as extra cash. You say he lives in a nice area, so you'll find responsible people screaming for rooms at a reasonable rent. Find one through friends of friends. He could always try it for three months.
Old people can be frail and we must be kind to them. But I know a lot of people who play the "old card" and try to get away with preposterous behaviour. Many's the time I've been pushed out of my place in a queue by some old bat with a walking stick who somehow thinks because she's old she has a right to go before me. The way to respect old people is, yes, to be courteous and kind, but also to treat them as fellow human beings, not daft creatures with no brains or business sense.
It is only paying back
For all the years your father looked after your wellbeing when growing up, it seems terribly sad that you cannot find it in your heart to help him along a little bit financially in his remaining "frail years" and at the same time still allow him the privilege to store all the furniture which he holds so dear and reminds him of the family's good days. It may be your turn one day. Your sister seems to have the answer.
His real needs
By complaining he has no money, your father, who is probably feeling lonely and useless, has the attention of your sister to such an extent she wishes to mobilise the family members to support him. Financial support is not the support he needs. You are not being unfair by hesitating to contribute. The needs of your family come first. I suggest that he does however need family support not in the financial sense but in the emotional sense. He needs to feel life is worth living, that he is valued. If your father had the money what would do with it? Would he take a holiday and if so to where? You could say the family was going to take this holiday, would he like to come? Is there a grandchild who wants to attend university or even just live in the town? Perhaps he would like this young company as a lodger. Should this happen then the young person could introduce him to looking for bargains on the internet and get him so interested that he wanted to sell his furniture on eBay! As a last resort, if it is money he needs, he can realise capital from his house through a finance agreement or by downsizing. Do not pay him money. He may live to be 100 and you may be a pensioner by the time he dies.
You need empathy
You ask if you are being unfair. I'm not sure that could be quantified in parent/child relationships, but your letter suggests a lack of imagination.
You say your father is in his 70s and frail; even supposing he knew how to sell his furniture and had the energy to organise it, can you imagine how it might be psychologically to part with objects that carry memories? How sad it might feel?
When your father "always complains" about money, it may be emotional insecurity rather than financial. He could be pinning his inchoate fears on money matters. It may be that money is not what he really needs; can you and your sister give him the time to discuss it all?
You don't say how long your father has been on his own. If he's never had lodgers before it could be a formidable thing to take on at his age. I can see how having another person in the house could be reassuring to you and your sister, but it could cause enormous stress for your father.
At your age you cannot have experienced how one can become less strong, less confident, less sharp of mind than one was, and more anxious. One can be aware of this happening, and aware that others, in their impatience, can infantilise you.
Try to imagine getting to his age, being on your own, and being treated resentfully by your own children. Even if they didn't express their resentment in words, you'd feel it.
My daughter, who's a lovely girl, got pregnant when she was 17. She refused to have an abortion – she didn't know who the father was – and we helped bring up our grand-daughter who's now 20 and a lovely girl. But now my daughter's got pregnant again, by accident, and this time she says she wants to bring up the child herself properly. But we know that frankly my daughter's incapable of being a good mother and we know the burden will fall on us again. We were hoping to have some free time at last as we're still young enough to enjoy ourselves. What can we do?
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