She's Not a Burden, She's My Mother

(photo: Shutterstock image)

I was recently part of an email thread in which someone sent out a link to an article by Dave Ramsey called How Not to be a Financial Burden on Your Kids. Ramsey begins the article by saying:

If we’re honest, we all carry a deep fear that we won’t have enough money to sustain us through retirement—becoming a financial burden to our children. The 2010 Retirement Confidence Study shows that only 16% of workers are very confident that they will be able to live comfortably in retirement.

Then he goes on to cite the data that really had people panicked:

Only 46% of workers have tried to calculate how much they’ll need to save for retirement. As a result, 29% of workers think they can retire comfortably on less than $250,000! The fact is, a couple who retires at age 65 can expect to spend that much just in medical expenses by the time they are 85!

Ramsey then suggests that the financially prudent couple will have $750,000 saved for retirement. “How on earth can we ever save that?!” one friend on the email exchange asked. She and her husband are quickly approaching their forties. They’ve been contributing to their retirement accounts for years, but haven’t had enough of an income to sock away large amounts. Also, some unforeseen financial crises meant that they had to dip into their savings at one point, setting their financial goals back significantly. As a one-income, barely middle-class family, this couple faces a daunting task to get their savings where it supposedly needs to be—a situation that many of us on the email thread could relate to. Using Ramsey’s terms—which merely echo the worldview of the culture at large—my panicked friends wanted to know: How in the world can we ever save almost a million dollars so that we can avoid being burdens to our children?

As my peers and I approach the big 4-0, I hear discussions like this a lot. And I’m starting to think that we’re focusing on the wrong part of the equation.

Getting $750,000 in the bank is indeed an enormous task. Most people I know have situations in their lives that make this even more challenging: one spouse stays home, they have a larger-than-average family, they’ve faced unforeseen medical bills, or had long periods of unemployment. And when they think of trying to hit that number, they feel overwhelmed, weary, and defeated. They lie awake at night worrying that they’ll become the dreaded b-word: burdens.

But maybe the whole situation feels so bad because it’s completely unnatural.

Has there ever been another civilization where the elderly were expected to fend for themselves until their dying breath? If there has, this kind of setup certainly has not been the norm in human history. In most times and places it was simply assumed that younger generations would take care of their older relatives. Aging parents didn’t have to have frantic discussions about how amass tremendous wealth so that they could support themselves into their nineties; it was just assumed that they’d move in with one of their kids or other relatives. We’re not designed to live as autonomous robots, needing nothing from anyone from the day we turn 18 until the day we die. Yet that is what our society—where personal comfort and money are prized above all else—tells us to aim for. If trying to go that route feels wrong, it might be because there is something wrong with it.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that it’s possible for every couple to live with their children or family. I think putting away some kind of savings for retirement is a good thing, and I understand that some people simply will not have the option of extended care by family members. Even in the cases where the younger generations are willing to help, some people’s needs surpass what can be done at home. And in those societies where younger generations taking care of the elderly was the only option, people who did not have family who were able or willing to help usually ended up in tragic situations. So I’m grateful that there are options out there for people for whom the traditional family care-taking setup doesn’t work.

But what does trouble me is that independence until the grave is now the default assumption. (For example, in a recent Wall Street Journal Article targeted at adult children whose parents are beginning to need assistance, the option of parents moving in with children is not even discussed.) What troubles me is that it’s become an accepted part of our cultural lexicon to refer to people who need our assistance—our parents, no less—as “burdens.”