The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Carolyn Hax: His thoughtlessness about elder care is alarming. But there’s more.

(Nick Galifianakis/for The Washington Post)

Dear Carolyn: My husband, "John," is the oldest of three children. His siblings, "Bill" and "Sue," both live where they all were raised. Both parents are in declining health. Over the years, Sue has taken on the lion's share of caring for them. She is a nurse, so a logical person to tend to medical issues, and now works in a high-pressure corporate job in the health-care industry.

Bill and his wife help out when specifically asked, but that is all. We have regularly sent money to Sue to help with expenses as we are more able to do so than she.

Mom and Dad tend to call on Sue, believing her work is less important and demanding than Bill's. Moving them out of their home is not really a possibility. They have recently agreed to have someone help once a week, but now Sue spends time managing her, so while she is relieved of some physical work, she is still involved.

Sue is about to change jobs, and is concerned she will no longer be as flexible as she has been to tend to her parents' needs. She has spoken with Bill and his wife, who have said they will try to help. When I suggested to my husband the three of them get on the phone together to come up with a plan, he told me it "wasn't his problem" and that he had too much else on his mind. Bill's attitude is similar.

I'm just a sister-in-law, so have no real say, obviously. But when I talk with Sue, as I do regularly to provide some emotional support, I can see she is at the end of her rope. She told me recently, in tears, that if she could pay $2,500 (the last amount we contributed to the parents' fund) to be free of her responsibility she would do it in an instant.

I feel terrible that she carries this burden, but don't know how I can help. The family does not communicate well. Years ago, I asked how my mother-in-law would manage financially if my father-in-law died. You'd have thought I was asking if it was okay to kill him. This head-in-the-sand approach may work for my husband and his brother, but it is obviously not working for Sue. Is there anything I can do?

— Frustrated

Frustrated: Yes! You can choose not to retreat in the face of a ridiculous, entitled, sexist response from your husband about the responsibility for his parents’ end-of-life care.

You’re not “just” a sister-in-law here; you’re a spouse. That you’ve described your role relative to Sue and not John says you’ve let yourself be suckered into the notion that this is primarily Sue’s story. Sue, Bill and John have equal standing and equal responsibility here, and that math doesn’t change just because Sue is the only one showing up for it.

A moneyed out-of-towner can spring for more in-home staffing, at least; a strapped one can make and take calls, book appointments, actually care.

Technically, of course, your husband is right. His parents’ well-being is his problem only if he chooses for it to be, and Sue herself has chosen to assume this burden. There is no law or contract in force here.

But this interpretation of who owes what to whom rests on definitions of obligation and choice that take zero account of moral imperatives. Your husband just stated, in so many words — or I should say, in devastatingly few words — that he is perfectly comfortable leaving the messy stuff to everyone else simply because he can.

Unless there’s some backstory here that would excuse your husband of any moral debt to his sister or to the people who raised him, his dismissiveness betrays an utter failure of character. Apparently there’s a backstory of female disempowerment in this family, given the dismissiveness toward Sue’s professional worth, but that hardly excuses and barely explains.

And while time will eventually eliminate this caregiving problem, John’s character problem will be in your marriage (and has been, no doubt) as long as you are. I’d be surprised, too — though genuinely pleased and relieved on your behalf — if it didn’t creep into other aspects of your later years. Imagine if your health spirals and you need him to show up for you when doing that is a lot harder than writing a check. When it’s the hardest thing he’s ever been asked to do, in fact. Will he embrace you as his problem to care for? As his privilege?

So my advice for you is to step far enough back from the Sue-is-overwhelmed problem to see the full scope of the dynamics at play; what they mean for you now and will mean over time; and what is within your power to change.

If nothing else, please, stand up openly for Sue. Tell John, steadily, it’s his “problem” as much as it is Sue’s. Never let him think free rides are actually free.

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