How to Handle "Thrifty"...or Cheap Elderly Relatives

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My nursing home patient was fuming as she pointed at a beautiful ceramic planter, filled with colorful flowers and festooned with a "Happy Birthday" balloon.

"My sister is a fool! That stupid thing must have cost at least $50—of my money! What a waste….I called her and told her never to do that again!"

There was more—much more—all in the same vein. My patient's sister lives about a two hours' drive from the nursing home, and suffers from chronic illnesses that make traveling difficult. In spite of this, she visits at least twice a month, usually toting bags of candy, clothes, and toiletries for my patient (who complains bitterly if her sister dares bring the ‘wrong' brand).

Inevitably, they argue about the offerings, and the sister leaves in tears. On the other hand, if she dares to arrive empty-handed, a meticulously detailed shopping list appears. Talk about your lose-lose situations….

Now, my patient is an intelligent person, and she knows this kind of interaction isn't healthy. We work in therapy on trying to develop healthier, more constructive ways of relating to the sibling she really does love, but progress is hard won. Time after time, well-intentioned visits end in arguments, and hurt feelings.

When dealing with people raised in the shadow of the Great Depression (or other economic hardship conditions), any interaction involving money is likely to be fraught with tension and anger. Often, people raised in impoverished circumstances have spent a lifetime depriving themselves of necessities in order to build a nest egg they hope will protect them from future catastrophe.

When they were young and healthy, striving to keep the metaphoric wolf from the door was a challenge, and wresting success from the jaws of possible ruin becomes the stuff of proud legend. My patient loves to tell the story of how she walked 30 blocks to work to save the carfare, and once calculated how many lunches she'd skipped to fund a semester of her sister's college education. Some of her life's greatest triumphs were built on iron-willed self-denial.

Unfortunately, the focus shifts over time, and as people age they fixate more and more on the habit of privation—the ritual of self-denial—rather than the security they built or the happiness of the people for whom they deprived themselves. Once a means to an end, saving (or more accurately, hoarding) money becomes a goal unto itself.

Happiness takes a back seat to the self-worth derived from the struggle: The more you do without, the better a person you are. However, life goes on, needs continue, and prices go up. There's no way around it: All of us must part with money to live. But to my patient, and many other people of her generation, every penny spent feels like a failure.

If your loved one fits this pattern, you probably know well how hard it can be to do anything nice for her. Instead of being touched by your thoughtfulness or wowed by your taste, she'll lecture you on your spendthrift habits or refuse to accept (or use) your offerings. "Nothing I do is ever right" is an oft-heard refrain from caregivers in this situation, and it's no wonder that many are tempted to just stop trying, and walk away. Few experiences are more frustrating than the sense that your well-meaning efforts are doomed to failure. Common responses are to stop trying or to stop loving, neither of which is particularly positive. In such situations, a few things can be helpful:

  • First, try to be empathic. Remind yourself that people do not choose the conditions under which they were raised, and formative experiences and beliefs can be very, very difficult to change.
  • Second, when you buy things for your loved one, try to get her to be a partner in the decision-making process. This lets you factor in current real-world conditions, and allows her to experience them first-hand. She may have been able to buy the perfect wool sweater for $5.00 in 1950, but prices are now higher. Wool may no longer be the best option--a $20 fleece made of recycled plastic bottles may provide more warmth, and appeal to her sense of thrift and need to save the universe.
  • Third, let her vent. Listen to the story about the perfect sweater she found at the now-defunct department store in 1953, praise her thrift and industry and great bargain-hunting skills, mourn the passing of the good old days, then help her to choose from among the clearly-priced sale options in a catalog. She may choose the cheapest, and later berate you for ‘letting her buy that junk,' but it's also possible that she'll wear it until it falls apart, proud to continue her tradition of ‘making do.'

Of note: When I returned to see my patient the following week, the planter was gone, having been given to an aide. The balloon remained, carefully tied to her bookshelf. She caught my glance, and noted, "Well, it is kind of cute…"

Dr. Mary Languirand, PhD

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Mary A. Languirand, PhD, is in private practice in Garden City, NY, and counsels individuals, families, and health professionals in skilled nursing facilities. She co-authored (with Robert Bornstein, PhD) "When Someone You Love Needs Nursing Home, Assisted Living, or In-Home Care."

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8 Comments

This article struck me as something that shows up everywhere, not only for our elders, but perhaps for ourselves as well.

I was a struggling single mother for many years, then my boys grew up and are now off making it on their own, mostly. For my 60th birthday my local son took me out to lunch with his best childhood friend. What a blessing. My other son who lives far from me, talks with me daily and is my closest relative, sent me a sweet message electronically and a $25 Starbucks card. I know he struggles to pay rent and he owes me some money. It didn't make sense to me that he spent money on me when he had what I thought were other, higher priorities for those few dollars.

It consumed my thoughts. I really struggled with it. Was he making other odd decisions. Should he have sent me $25 to pay down the small debt instead? I sadly mentioned this to him, while thanking him for the sweet thoughts... we talked a lot and all is OK.

However, months and months later, my son has paid me back. I just got a coffee at Starbucks and I am reminded of his love. I called him again to thank him and he reminded me of our discussion of wether he should have given me that gift. I said, I apologize... I am an imperfect person and I'm working on that.

As I read the posting, I realized... I am that person. When I get a gift, my mind goes into overdrive and sadly, I squashed one of the precious gifts my son gave me. UGH!

My mother told me that she and her sisters fight all the time and the great thing is they forgive each other immediately. I used to say, why do you have to fight at all?

Because we are imperfect people. We are effected deeply by our struggles ... and sometimes it makes us ungracious gift receivers. Thank you for reminding me that I need to work on this...
Madge1: My mother is cheap even to herself. If she came to lunch or dinner, she would not have anything decent to wear, unless she found it in a trash dumpster.
She mostly only calls me when she wants something but never returns my calls just to say hello or see how she's doing.
My mother is so extreme that she looks like a homeless bag lady (literally!) pushing her shopping cart around collecting aluminum cans. She thinks it's funny when strangers give her a 100 dollar bill when she is a multi-millionaire. She will put that toward the principal like everything else.
One time when we were kids- my dad was working on building an addition onto our home one weekend-it was an ongoing project that took a few years. My mother came home with a nice couple, who wanted to meet the family. They graciously gave my parents a check. My father was mortified with embarrasment and later tore the check up.
I am the one, out of 4 kids who will be the one to clean up any family messes. When she passes, I will be the one stuck with dealing w/ her estate with no will or trust.
I'm sure my mother, like yours, thinks I am doing it JUST for the money- HER money. Sad!
If I had a choice- I'd take having a relationship with my mom over having her money when she passes IF their is anything left after probate.
I'm glad you have your daughters like I am glad I have my son. I will not make the same mistake she has choosing money over family!
Thank you for your article- It really struck a cord with me. My mother will be 87 years old. She is German, married my dad who was stationed there in the Nat'l Guard. She was about 16 during WWII. She has been frugal her whole life to the point of obsession. I recall her telling us kids a story. She said the best gift at Christmas was to get ONE orange. That was it.
My mother still works security for a company. She's worked for major league football and baseball teams. Don't even think about getting anything past her, like vodka in a water bottle, she knows all the tricks! Still working- she is proud at 86 to be street traffic qualified, and hand cuff qualified.
She has worked non-stop building a real estate empire (but has no relationship with her own children). She has 7 homes, but lives in squalor. She won't even spend 99c on a hamburger, it could go toward principal on her latest house-all totalling about 2-3 million dollars.
She has no life, not even with her own family. Her life is only to work and accumulate wealth. The sad part, she has no will or trust- although I've worked on getting her to do so for years to no avail.
When I've asked her to lunch, to celebrate her birthday, she says, No- save your money. I finally told her. Mom, it is not the price of the meal, it is the fact that I want to spend time with you, to have my son know and connect with his grandmother. That is the point. Like those Visa commercials, it is priceless. She still has not gone to lunch with us. With another birthday coming up, I will try again.
My mother abandoned a daughter in Germany when she married my dad. I've only seen this half sister a few times, she speaks very little English, party because she didn't want to learn because her mother left marrying an American. My sister has saved EVERY letter and picture, Xmas card that anyone in our family has written since 1977. My mother last wrote her when my son was born in 1999. Obviously, they mean the world to her (her husband showed me these albums when my son and I visited her 2 yrs ago.) I've asked mom to write her, especially as she is getting older, but mom refuses! I want it for Finny, even if she won't or has not been here for me all my life.
Thank you again for your article. Although it makes me sad, I understand a little better now. I am a very good saver and frugal myself, but I try to have a relationship with my son that I don't have with her and learn from her.