Question: My husband wants his frail mother to come and live with us. But she is a cantakerous old woman who I believe will be a disruptive presence in our house. I know we’re supposed to respect our elders but for the good of our family, I believe that she should go into a home. What should I do?
Rabbi Naftali Brawer
Naftali Brawer is the CEO of the Spiritual Capital Foundation.
This is a very difficult dilemma. In framing an answer, it is important to reference a couple of Jewish sources. The most obvious source is the fifth commandment to “honour your father and mother”, which the rabbis extend to parents-in-law as well.
A less well-known source, but one which in a way is more pertinent to your particular question, is found from the book of Isaiah: what does God truly desire? asks the prophet but “to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to ignore your own kin.”
Against this backdrop there are two key questions that you ought to consider. The first is what does your mother-in-law need? The second is what does she want?
In answering the first question, it might well be that what she needs is full- time care, be it emotional or physical, and this is simply not something you are equipped to provide. If this is the case, you are right to find a care home where she will get the attention she requires.
Maimonides rules that a child can pay others to look after a parent if it is too distressing for the child to do so on his own (Hilchot Mamrim 6:10).
If, however, your mother-in-law does not require such intensive care and it is just a matter of putting up with cranky old woman, I think that you would be duty-bound to at least try to take her in and see how you manage.
But it might not come to that if you carefully consider what she wants. It might be that as much as you do not want her living with you, she does not want to live with you either. Ageing is very difficult and as one cedes control over so much of life, the last vestiges of independence become very significant.
If one is fortunate enough to be able to assist one’s parents in their old age by providing them a warm, loving and familiar home, it is a sacred duty to do so. Equally, it might be that the best way of helping is to try and preserve what little dignity one’s parent has left by enabling them to live independently for as long as possible.
Either way, we owe much to those who gave us life and nurtured us when we were vulnerable. It’s time to return the favour.
Rabbi Jonathan Romain
Jonathan Romain is rabbi at Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue.
This is an agonising issue that affects many others too. Yes, we want to help ageing relatives, but we can also be stunned at the thought of how it will totally change our own life, even if they are the kindest people, and it can be much more daunting if they are not.
It has long been a Jewish value to both look after the elderly and to care for parents; so when the two combine, it is an emphatic obligation.
As your mother-in-law may have reminded you on many an occasion, the Ten Commandments would seem to give you no option: Respect your father and your mother implies that you have to do their wishes.
However, Jewish law recognises that there are limits to what one owes parents, such as when they make unreasonable, or even illegal, demands. Maimonides justifies it on the grounds that you must obey your father and mother, providing that they act like a good Jewish father and mother. If not, then your duty to them is cancelled.
In your case, you need to work out the root of your objections to hosting your mother-in-law. Is it just a matter of inconvenience? Or is it based on fears of possible tensions (eg having two women in the house, or competing for the attention of your husband)?
If so, you should reluctantly come to terms with her presence and find ways to make it succeed. It would not only be right to do so, but in your own interest, for it would send a message to your children as to how you should be looked after when you are old and frail.
However, if you genuinely reckon it will threaten the viability of your home, that would be too high a cost to undertake and you would not be expected to do so.
One alternative would be to keep her in her own house with your help and the support of care workers, be they full or part-time. Another would be for her to go into a residential home. The advantage of the latter is the range of activities that might be on offer, as well as the chance for much greater company.
Your husband may feel guilty if she cannot come to stay with you, and although that would be the ideal scenario, there would no point if it resulted in a house seething with resentments and tension.