Aging Parents Nursing Debt

Family Matters

My mother just turned 70. She lives on a very modest fixed income and is running up her credit cards to make ends meet, with a current balance of about $8,000 and growing. Would it be wise for me to take out a loan in order to pay down her debt?

I remember the story Erma Bombeck relayed about the changing roles that occur between aging parents and their adult children. She was driving her mom to an appointment and had to make a sudden stop at a traffic signal. She instinctively reached her arm out to protect her mother and at that moment they both realized their roles had shifted. While her mother had spent many years caring for Erma as a child, it was now Erma's turn to assist with the needs of her mom.

Clearly there is a lesson in Erma Bom-beck's story for all of us. We are given the fourth commandment in Exodus 20:12, “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land which the Lord your God gives you.”

Section 2218 of the Catechism draws on the book of Sirach and its beautiful description of how we are called to love, respect and support our parents (Sirach 3:2-6, 12-13, 16). Verse 13 speaks of showing forbearance even when our parents lack understanding.

So clearly we are called to assist our parents. However, given your present question, we should also keep in mind Pope Leo XIII's words in Rerum Novarum (On the Condition of the Working Classes) that, “No one, certainly, is obliged to assist others out of what is required for his own necessary use or for that of his family.”

Before choosing to pay your mother's bills, I would encourage you to consider the following issues:

As a general rule, I would look to your mom's resources first as a source of her debt repayment. Does she have assets that can be liquidated in order to pay the debt?

Make sure you have considered all possible sources of income available for your mom, including social security.

You may want to contact her credit-card companies to see if the terms of the debt can be modified to make it easier for your mom to repay.

You will want to determine if the underlying cause of her growing debt has been dealt with. I don't see how it would help your mom for you to take the burden of her current debt if new debts will just be created. It may be an appropriate time for you to sit down with your mom and develop a budget that brings spending in line with her income and avoids the use of credit. In fact, your mom may be at the stage where she would appreciate one of her children taking over her financial responsibilities. That may be another way you can help.

If your mom just doesn't have the resources to pay the debt and it is something you want to consider doing personally, review whether you have adequate resources to pay the debt without inappropriately impacting your other family obligations. If your financial position is such that the only way for you to pay down her debt is to go into debt yourself, it seems to me you really don't have adequate resources, and a different answer should be sought. If you have exhausted all other avenues, you may want to visit the web site of the National Foundation for Consumer Credit at www. to locate a local affiliate credit counseling office.

God love you!

Phil Lenahan is director of media and finance at Catholic Answers in El Cajon, California.