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Carolyn Hax: Mom fears destitution, declares she won’t ask for help

(Nick Galifianakis/For The Washington Post)

Adapted from an online discussion.

Dear Carolyn: How do you talk to your parents about their retirement and finances? I had a conversation with my mom about this. I know she is financially fine — my dad has shown me their financial information, their accounts, etc. because he wants someone to know in case he dies and my mom needs help — but she is genuinely worried and doesn’t want to do anything because she thinks she’s going to be destitute.

The most troubling part of this conversation is that she said even if she were destitute and desperately needed money, she'd never tell me. She'd never want to be a burden to her children.

I believe she wouldn’t say anything and I’m really upset that she would rather just suffer on her own than rely on her children. I told her not to think of it as my financially supporting her, I’m just repaying my student loan debt to her on a significant delay.

I’m really upset though. The whole conversation felt horrible. I don’t want my mom to suffer and live miserably for her golden years. I want her to have a wonderful life, go be one of those swinging retirees who’s loving life, and I hate that she doesn’t trust me at all to help her if she needed it.

— Troubled

Troubled: Please explain to her that while you understand and appreciate where she’s coming from, her position has had the opposite effect: It actually created a new burden for you.

Where before you could feel comfortable knowing she's either okay or will ask for help, now you will harbor constant worry that she might not be okay and you won't be aware of it until it's too late.

Accordingly, you can say to her, you'd like her to UN-burden you by promising that if she is ever in trouble, she will give you the gift of allowing you to help.

That might not work, but at least it will make it clear that if she uses the martyr argument, it'll be for her own benefit, not yours, and that's something.

Readers' thoughts:

· Something about this felt off: Did you have a conversation with her, or with your dad? Be careful. Families where the communication strategy is triangulation often have these giant issues with sorting out what is the truth. Get your parents both in a room together and ask, directly.

· My mother used to say the same things to my sister and me about her health. For her to begin talking to us, it took lots of reinforcement that keeping us in the dark made the burden greater. We’re both nurses, by the way. We have to reinforce the importance of keeping us in the loop all the time with her, but she has done much better. Keep at it, and have lots of frank conversations.

· I actually ask my mom, “Do you really feel okay, or are you telling me what you think I want to hear?” She will then admit that something is or isn’t going on, or what her fears are. Sometimes you have to be blunt.

· Please recognize that for you this feels like an opportunity to help out your parents, but for your mother, no longer being able to provide for her own basic needs might feel like a loss of control over her life, a loss of autonomy to make decisions about where to live and what to do day-to-day. Receiving money from you can result in a big shift in the power dynamics of your relationship, and she may be worried about that.