Dear Margo: When Unfairness Is Built Into the Culture

My parents gave their property to my brother but are now relying on my good will. Margo Howard’s advice

When Unfairness Is Built Into the Culture

Dear Margo: We are not originally from the U.S. We are from Asia. In our culture, the parents’ property goes to sons, and they give daughters whatever they can afford. Last time they went back home, they signed over all the property to their sons. One brother (the oldest and our mother’s favorite) was responsible for all of the finances of the house and other decisions.

When they came back, my mother lost her job. I helped them buy a two-bedroom condo. Now she is getting some unemployment, and they are just surviving financially and are extremely happy to be a burden on me. It was my mistake to sponsor my parents to come to the U.S. They don’t know any English, and I have to do all the bill paying, grocery buying, coordinating of medicines, etc.

My husband is unhappy about this, so it’s causing stress in my personal life. What bothers me is that they have given everything to their sons. They should have stayed with them. I have paid them back every penny they spent on my education and marriage. What should I do or not do? — Stuck in the Middle.

Dear Stuck: While it is an admirable part of your culture to look after the elders, I would say you have certainly done your share. Given that you are now cross-cultural, I recommend that you encourage your parents to return home. It would be fair to tell them you are not able to support them any longer, and it is harming your marriage. Your brothers, according to custom, are their proper heirs and should be the ones to look after them.

Let your parents know that being adrift in a country where they cannot speak the language or even go shopping cannot be comfortable for them. If you withdraw from the situation, I think they will, indeed, return to Asia. I am not quite certain why they came. They have had the American experience, and it does not seem to have worked out. Do not let them guilt you into continuing with things as they are. — Margo, equitably

Aging Parents and Finances 

Dear Margo: I have a situation with my elderly mother, who stays with me some months and with my sister’s family the rest of the time. When my mom stays with me, she often is dramatic and somewhat needy, and frankly, I feel she needs to be in assisted living. My sister and I rarely talk to each other due to all of our dysfunction. How do I get my mom to understand that I love her but truly think she needs more care than I can provide? She is on a fixed income, and I would not be able to provide funds to help out. — Worn Thin

Dear Worn: Dysfunction or no, you have to talk to your sister about the situation. This conversation is necessary, so just try to keep things on the subject at hand. You do not say how your sib is fixed financially, or whether she agrees with your opinion. You need to find out. If your sister cannot swing an assisted living residence financially but agrees that more professional care is needed, the next step is to look into Medicaid options. If she disagrees with your evaluation, suggest that she be the sole caretaker and you will contribute what you can.

Should you be able to reach an agreement with your sister about the care of your mother, it will be a difficult talk to have with your mother, but an important one. I have friends who have lived through this, and granted, it’s not easy, but it works out. Companionship with others in the same boat often turns out to be a blessing, and the elderly parent does better. — Margo, thornily

Dear Margo is written by Margo Howard, Ann Landers’ daughter. All letters must be sent via the online form at Due to a high volume of e-mail, not all letters will be answered.

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31 Responses so far.

  1. avatar Kate Olsen says:

    My Mom has been gone for 13 years now after a major heart attack that took us by surprise when she was only 56 but I am so happy that she communicated with us for years about what we should do if she were to be incapacitated in any way.  She was adamant – put me in a nursing home because I do not trust you all to not push me down the stairs in my wheel chair.  LOL – of course she was just kidding but she was telling us in her humorous way that she did not want to be a burden to anyone.  She also told us that if we left her hooked up to machines she would come back and haunt us.  This was 13 yeara ago when living wills were not as popular.  I have had serious discussions with my son about what should happen in the same secenarios.  He carries my signed, notarized health care proxy in his wallet.  We did that 8 years ago when I had major surgery.  I think that it is the responsibility of parents to talk to their children and discuss what should happen as they age and if they lose mental faculties.  We should not leave it to our children to guess or to put it off for fear of offending us.  I am 49 in 3 weeks and my son and I have discused all the possibilities.  He knows where to find the life insurance papers and anything else he will need when I pass, which I hope will not be for many many years.  But he also has the notarized stuff to take care of all my business should I start to deteriorate mentally. 

    Please start the conversation with your sister and then both of you speak to your Mom together.  You may be surprised that sister feels the same as you and/or that Mom does not want to be a burden but is unaware of all the choices.  Also check out all the services for seniors that are available – there are many from some companion care to full time in home care to nursing homes – tons of choices and your local senior center has people trained to help you find what you need and what you can afford. 

    hugs to you

    • avatar Brenda S says:

      Like you, my mother died unexpectedly.  My sister who was divorced moved in with my father.  At the time, my sister knew that she also had a life threatening illness–liver related.  When our dad’s health deteriorated, she found what is considered a group home for him.  She wanted him to have as close to a home setting as possible.  He died shortly after moving there.  As her health deteriorated, I knew that she liked the idea of a group home as opposed to a nursing home.  Prior to going into the group home she had to be in a rehabilitation nursing home.  They stole everything she had of value while she was there.  The group home we found for her took care of her until she died.  There are some that do.  The cost of this one compared to that of assisted living rather than the cost for a nursing home.  She had her own bedroom and lived with 2 other women.  Towards the end we brought in hospice.  I’ve already informed my husband and close relatives who have the responsibility of us that this is what I want for me also.  (We have close relatives named as our care givers because we adopted 2 mentally challenged children.)

  2. avatar nancy s says:

    Just because the LW 2’s mother is “dramatic and needy” does not necessarily mean she needs to be in assisted living. In fact, instead of having the conversation just between the two sisters at odds with each other, it sounds like the three of them have some thinking to do. Unless the mother is mentally incapacitated, she should be in charge of such a huge decision. It’s fair for the LW to say her mother’s extended visits are too much for her, but not fair for her to choose the solution for a woman who sounds capable of making decisions for herself. Keeping a parent’s dignity intact is essential– isn’t that what we all hope for ourselves, in the future?

  3. avatar Briana Baran says:

    My mother is 80, and she is recalcitrant, lacking in accountability and responsibility for herself, lies about her condition to her doctor, and lives in a large house that is essentially falling apart due to neglect that she could easily have taken care of (yes, she had the money, no she didn’t care to do so, yes, she had the mental faculties to make the choices) when the repairs were needed. Her will is a disaster, none of us (she has three daughters) are completely aware of the true nature of her finances or financial arrangements…because she refuses to discuss them at all (no, we don’t care a fig about inheriting)…and she is just clever, shifty and manipulative enough to pass any elder care assessor’s verdict of competence.
    I’ve tried to talk to her about the future in extremely reasonable and even compassionate ways. She insists she’s “doing fine”. She is not. she has told me what medications she’s currently on, of which she claimed to have no understanding, so I looked them up. Not good signs. She claims her doctor says she’s “doing great”. Sure she is…but she can’t remember things we’ve talked about (the important things) from week to week…and she’s doing “great” for someone with serious liver damage from alcohol induced cirrhosis, steadily rising blood sugar and blood pressure, and a refusal to eat correctly, get new glasses, or a hearing aid, and who is living in a mouse turd, mold and insect infested house.
    I have tried to talk to my sisters. One is utterly useless…she lives in England, is “disabled” (another pathetic story), and refuses to realistically discuss her “best friend”…except when it comes to the $11,000 our mother allegedly (in other words, does not) owes her. The other is living in denial because she is hoping (wishing) that she will just drop dead…so that she won’t have to actually care for her…and won’t really discuss the other just-too-awful-possibilities.
    I am all for dignity and independence…but I am also a realist. I live 1300 miles away from my mother, and I can hear and sense her deterioration. My sisters are not rational, and neither is she. I think about her falling down her stairs…Medicaid would install an excellent hand-rail, but she refuses to allow it. She should be using a cane, but she refuses. I have grim pictures of her falling, being unable to rise because she’s broken something (I am willing to pay for a Life Alert or similar and the monthly plan, but she’d toss the device in a drawer), and dying sprawled on the ground in pain and from dehydration. I don’t like my mother…but no one should die like that. Where is the dignity and independence in that? If it happened between my calls…it’s a serious possibility. If I bring it up to my sister who lives close to her…I’m telling her she’s a bad daughter. I am not. I am no martyr. I would fly up to Illinois and handle most of the business of moving our mother to a safer place, and I’m just pointing out awful possibilities to try and get through to her…because I know that if something like this happened, my sister would completely lose her mind from guilt. The one in England would throw steaming heaps of grief and blame at her.
    And I’d be mediating all of that and cleaning up the ensuing nightmare. All well and good to talk about our accountability to our parents, allowing them full responsibility for their choices, dignity, and all of that. What about their responsibility to their adult children? To make reasonable choices, decisions that don’t negatively impact everyone’s lives…including their own…and to be honest enough to say, “I need to make a serious change because I’m not capable of living this way anymore”. Not all parents were exactly caring, loving and supportive to their offspring when they were children…it’s even worse when those behaviors are exacerbated by age and begin to ruin those same childrens’ adult lives.

    • avatar casino la fantastique says:

      That sounds like an awful situation and I’m sorry you’re having to deal with it. It sounds like someone in your family (probably you, even though I’m sure it’ll be a headache) should be getting power of attorney for your mother ASAP. I’d give a call to your mom’s local aging services and see if that’s a good place to start. may be a place to start. Good luck, seriously.

      • avatar Briana Baran says:

        She will not give anyone any sort of power of attorney. Thank you for the web address, I am absolutely going to try and get some help. I don’t really mind the headache, and while I am NOT being a martyr, someone has got to be responsible in situations like this. I offered to move her to Houston, where I would be close, but far from intrusive, and living would be much less expensive, climatically easier (she hates the heat, and does poorly in it…but Illinois summers are as hot and humid as Houston’s, and everything…I mean everything here is air conditioned), and she would be much closer to shopping, doctors, her only grandsons, etc., and have a clean, small, new house with a tiny sweet garden…but she refused. Besides my sister in Chicago, there is a 71 year old cousin and her 79 year old husband, and I don’t want the burden falling on them. They’re very nice people…and they have kids, and  grandkids, of their own.
        Sometimes people on this site get nasty and ask why I don’t just cut off someone who is so toxic. My reply: it isn’t just me…and someone needs to be the adult at some point. Despite all the noxious opinions I’ve had directed at me, and my many defects…I’m actually pretty sane, and I can handle this.
        Thanks casino la fantastique. You made my day!

        • avatar Brenda S says:

          Briana, I can understand what you are going through with your mother.  I had kind of the same situation with my sister.  She knew that she had an illness that would require either a liver transplant or that she would die within a 10 year period.  Five years before she became very ill she was taking care of my father and became the executor to his will after he died.  She did not complete everything from his will. 
          Towards the end of her life, she refused to have me named as the executor to his estate and to even write a will for herself.  In fact, it was almost within the last stages that she even gave me power of attorney to handle her financial affairs.  After she died, I had to go to court to get things changed so that I could handle my dad’s estate and to be declared the heir to her estate (she was divorced with no children).  She had bought a lot of merchandise that had never been opened from a couple of those home shopping network companies.  One did not even want to deal with my power of attorney.  The whole situation was a nightmare.  Going to court took almost a year for everything.  I only lived a county away in the Dallas Fort Worth area. 
          If you cannot get things under control and sold before she dies, you may also spend a whole year going back and forth trying to get things settled.  Illinois is a lot further from Texas than my situation was from county to county.  Please do everything you can before the end; because, I promise you it will be a total nightmare afterwards–worse than what it is now.

          • avatar bamabob says:

            Briana, I hear you.  with a few minor exceptions you’ve described my life.  Hang in there.

  4. avatar Cindy Marek says:

    As for L #1, damn…it’s usually always the female who gets saddled with burden upon burden (regardless of culture). Do talk with your brother(s) and your parents. The ones with most $$$ and means should be taking care of them.

    Couldn’t agree more with Margo (and regards L #2).

    Communication is key!

    • avatar luna midden says:

      REally, contact #1 brother in ASIA and tell him you are about to go through a divorce and if that happens your respected parents will be out on the not respected streets. That will promptly get back to the mother land about how #1 son is not taking care of his respected parents with THEIR PROPERTY!!!! It is time for #1 son to sell (if needed) some of his (THEIRS) PROPERTY and get his honored parents back to the mother land where they know the language (and he and his wife can take care of them).

      You are right, most cultures feel the daughters should be slaves to the parents while the sons get everything. Look at those Duggars and their 19spawns. The oldest, a son, is married, has a house, that is owed by the parents, has a business, owned by the parents, and the older girls???? Well, they teach the younger ones, cook, clean, and take care of all the others. They used to sew all the clothes too.   The parents got married at 17and 19, not them, the parents would lose their indentured servents. I am willing to bet a few of those girls NEVER MARRY-OUT OF GUILT

      • avatar wendykh says:


        The older Duggar girls have gone on several mission trips lasting 3-6 months in Latin America, usually El Salvador. They volunteer in their communities as well, firefighting and such. The second boy isn`t married yet either and he`s well over 21 now. It isn`t always easy to find a partner who is smart, attractive, godly, and not a fame whore in those circles. The kids are hardly indentured servants.  

    • avatar John Lee says:

      I’m not a big fan of “communication is key”.  Commnication is merely a small first step.
      Unfortunately, in most of these difficult family situations, communication just means you find out why the offenders do not wish to do anything at all that is reasonable or sensible.  Been there done that with my mom.  She communicates VERY well, tell my sister and I what she deserves and must have.  All unrealistic for someone in her situation.

      Compromise and willingness to change is the key.

  5. avatar martina says:

    LW2 – Check with the agency on aging where your mother is officially residing and see what kind of assistance they can provide.  If your sister is against putting her in assisted living then ask the agency about respite care. Perhaps your mother only needs a senior living apartment?  You could ask them about that.  You really need to talk to your sister and your mother.  Though, with your mother being dramatic and needy, I can imagine that she isn’t going to go into assisted living or a senior apartment easily. My mom was very upset with us when we first put her in the home she’s at but she has adjusted very well and has come to realize that it is the best place for her.

  6. avatar JCF4612 says:

    LW1: I’m intrigued by how your mother landed any kind of job worth a toot without speaking English. Also, how could your parents qualify for a condo, even with your help? At any rate, unemployment benefits won’t last long. Since your parents have signed over their assets to your brothers as is custom in their homeland, it’s time they hauled themselves back to their homeland for the duration. Buy them one-way tickets and tell them you’ll visit when you can. America, as the land of opportunity, should not be prey to sponges unwilling to learn new ways.

    • avatar Briana Baran says:

      My sister’s in-laws only speak Korean, and qualify for a senior assisted living apartment, and some other form of SSN or disability (neither has worked for years). Her husband emigrated from Korea with them when he was 4, and is a US citizen. I assume they are as well…however, they speak no English, even though they’ve been here for over thirty years.
      My BIL is no sponge, he is thoroughly American and works very hard. He also pays many of their bills, as is customary in Korea. They can’t simply return. There have already been some fairly serious culture clashes.
      A lot of immigrants…legal or otherwise…find jobs without speaking a word of English. Legitimate, tax-paying, jobs. A lot of them learn on the job…but some do not. That’s how my grandparents (from Italy), and great-grandparents (from Poland) learned and became citizens and raised very successful children. My Italian grandfather couldn’t read or write at all…he learned through correspondence courses to read and write in English, and to do math, and got straight A’s while working 60+ hour weeks on the railroad and raising a family.
      That used to be the American way.

      • avatar Lila says:

        We have a very heavily Korean-populated area nearby.  In some ways it is nice because you can go to authentic Korean markets or restaurants… BUT, yes, many of the employees (and customers) there do not speak English.  Asking where something is in the market, you might as well actually be in Korea.
        My Spanish grandfather immigrated, learned English, and served in the Merchant Marine including during WWII.  Ironically, his English was probably better than his US-born wife’s – my grandmother came from a long line of Cajuns and although she was born and raised in Louisiana, her French was always her first language and her English was a distant second.  Her mother, also a US-born Cajun, did not learn any English at all until her teens.  Pockets of immigrants can be very insular.

    • avatar Frau Quink says:

      A one-way-ticket back to the old country is the only solution that I can see.
      Also, in general, I really have a problem with folks who don’t bother to learn English.

      • avatar Lila says:

        Amen to that, Frau Quink!  There was a news story a while back about an elderly Mexican-born woman who came to the US as a young girl, before we had the immigration procedures we do now.  The upshot was that although she lacked a green card, she will be allowed to stay in the US since she has been here since – I think  – the 1940s and did not enter illegally.  But then it became clear she depends on her grandchildren to translate for her… and I was thinking, this woman has been in the US a lot longer than I have even been alive, and STILL not a lick of English?  Ugh.

        • avatar Frau Quink says:

          Gruesse, Lila!
          Yes, whenever I read about a case that you mentioned, I can only shake my head.

  7. avatar David Bolton says:

    LW1: “What bothers me is that they have given everything to their sons. They should have stayed with them. I have paid them back every penny they spent on my education and marriage.”
    Well, any business situation usually requires two sides—and if you don’t like the arrangement, then get out of it. Unless of course you enjoy flailing about in self-perpetuated misery like some people. From the way your letter is written I gather you don’t care much for your parents (I could be wrong, but not once do you talk about them in non-financial terms)—so hopefully this won’t be hard. 
    LW2: “Assisted” living is just that—assisted. It is also expensive. Your mother will have to show she is mentally and functionally capable of living in such a facility (the quality of which varies greatly across a spectrum), and she’ll have to pony up the cash (which likely will mean liquidating all assets).
    Honestly, I would start by asking her to volunteer with you at an assisted living facility. Do some research and pick one you think might be a good match later down the line. Every time I’ve ever waited tables, I’ve gone to eat at the restaurant several times first—to get a feel for the atmosphere, the staff, the quality of service and so forth. This isn’t that much different. Go with an open eye and as a volunteer you’ll get an insider view at how the staff regards approaching patient care. 

  8. avatar cleanslate says:

    I think the real problem for LW#1 is that she may be LEGALLY responsible for her parents because she sponsored them to come here.  When you sponsor a relative from a foreign country, you contract with the government to take care of them.  She may not have the ability to tell them that they are on their own, or to force them out of the country.  

    • avatar Lila says:

      Cleanslate, true.  Was curious so I looked this up.  Sponsors have to sign an affidavit that they can support all of their sponsored immigrant relatives at 125% of the poverty level.  If they fail to do so, the immigrant can sue them for the support.  If the immigrant gets any means-tested support (welfare, food stamps, SSI benefits etc) from government agencies, the agencies can sue the sponsors to recover costs.  New immigrants are also not eligible for Medicare; even if they are over 65 and have been in the US for 5 years, they have to buy the coverage, it’s not an automatic benefit.
      The sponsor is responsible for the immigrant until the immigrant becomes a US citizen or has accrued about 10 years worth of contributions to Social Security, or leaves, or dies.  So it sounds like the LW will be on the hook for her parents indefinitely, and it is actually a pretty heavy financial burden.

  9. avatar mayma says:

    I’m perplexed by LW1.  Mom lost her job so you helped them buy a two-bedroom condo!?!?  You say that as if one logically follows on the other, when in fact it makes no sense at all.  I’m not sure what you (and your husband) thought was going to happen when you brought your non-English-speaking parents over.  You made some bad decisions; own that.  Don’t say, “I think they should do this or that” while being a silent martyr.  Take the reins.  Call your brothers and tell them to send money for your parents’ care.  A lot of it.  Pronto.  Then hire someone who will deal with their medicine and shopping and try to teach them English.  You could also — gasp — talk to your parents and ask them if they’d like to go back to Asia.  If they don’t want to, tell them they’ll have to be more collaborative by learning English, looking for work, down-sizing out of that condo, etc.  

    Sounds like you will have some cultural patterns to break, namely that of female passivity.  That will be hard, but there is tons of help out there (books, groups, etc.).  Becoming who you want, rather than who you were trained to be, is what America is all about.  Tell your brothers that reality is knocking.   

  10. avatar mayma says:

    RE: LW2    I don’t know the answer here, but I do know that regularly moving an elderly person from one sister to the next isn’t going to help her be less dramatic or needy.  

    • avatar Briana Baran says:

      It isn’t always possible for one person or family to keep that elderly person year round for a number of reasons. These include financial stress, work related stresses, such as who is tending to her, making certain she eats, or doesn’t climb the stairs, or do too much cleaning. You might think those are silly…but a lot of elderly people are officially competent, but completely unreasonable and irresponsible, not to mention stubborn and childish, about what they are actually capable of doing, and what they are not. There may also be serious stress if a given family is very short of space, or if grandma hates the dog, the cat, doesn’t approve of the lifestyle, or the oldest child’s boy/girl friend, or needs a regular treatment such as dialysis, or requires a special bed, or even a wheel chair.
      Please don’t lay out the “we should respect and take care of our elders”. If we don’t also respect and take care of ourselves, marriages can fail, jobs can be lost, careers be doomed, children can suffer badly, and lives can be permanently damaged.
      It doesn’t help the elderly person if her caretaker is highly stressed and miserable. These are the conditions that breed abuse. Having the older woman move once a year from one sibling’s house to the other is not being cruel or unfair…it’s absolutely reasonable and perhaps the kindest and most compassionate solution for everyone involved.

      • avatar David Bolton says:

        You’re exactly right.

        • avatar David Bolton says:

          Grrr… I hate this stupid comment engine. 

          What I meant to say was: “It doesn’t help the elderly person if her caretaker is highly stressed and miserable. These are the conditions that breed abuse.” On that you are exactly right.

          • avatar Briana Baran says:

            My MIL drove ten hours to West Texas (that’s 450 miles), every other week, and would stay three or four days to care for her mother who had been disabled by a stroke. My husband was in college at the time. She had four sisters who could help, and one of her surviving brothers gave a little help. Her oldest surviving sister so resented having to help her bed-ridden mother that she would completely break down…yet her children were all adults (and while they screamed endlessly about their mother’s issues, they did little or nothing to help) and though she lived the closest, she often did the least. Her children made life hell for everyone involved. The second oldest sister’s husband had terminal cancer, and she lived in Lubbock (about 8 hours away), and helped whenever she could. The third oldest was suffering from severe arthritis, needed a hip replacement, had terrible health problems, and an 8 hour drive from Dallas that she made as frequently as my MIL. The fourth sister, just ten years older than my MIL, who is the youngest of the 11 children, had to drive from Slidell Louisiana…about 16 hours, and she pulled her weight.
            The horrendous stress tore the family apart for two decades. It didn’t help the poor woman who had been incapacitated by multiple strokes, and it probably shortened the lives of two of the siblings. No one abused my husband’s grandmother, but the damage was incalculable. None of them were really qualified to help, and she easily qualified for a very nice continuous care home where everyone could have, and would have visited. So unnecessary, and so sad.

  11. avatar balthuszar says:

    the fact that LW1 refers to her brothers as her parent’s sons says alot about things

  12. avatar G T says:

    To the Asian LW, you must fight fire with fire.  Your culture probably dictates that the eldest son take care of the parents.  Insist very loudly to him and to your parents that he do his duty and move them into his home.  Your culture also probably says the husband is king of the castle and has the final say.  Tell your family members that your husband has made the decision that one of your brothers needs to step up to the plate and that as the wife you must obey him.  Have him announce said decision to parents if they don’t believe you.  Also, start telling other relatives and friends that know your relatives how your eldest brother accepted the money and property but is not taking care of his parents and how embarrassing and shameful you find the situation.  The blow back should shame them into action.  If all else fails, undo the sponsorship, which will force them to go back home.

  13. avatar Lila says:

    I agree with the other comments that the Asian parents should be strongly encouraged to return to Asia and live with the sons to whom they gave everything.  It also seems that they would be more comfortable with their own language, etc. as Margo says.
    I just can’t imagine choosing to live in a foreign country without making every effort to learn the language and blend in.  I have been to quite a lot of foreign countries and even if I am only there for a week or two, I will at least have a phrase book and come away knowing some basic survival phrases.  You never know what might happen. 
    What if something were to happen to this daughter?  Then the Asian parents would really be lost, and have no choice but to return home anyway.