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  • Writer's pictureDebbie Thrower

On (not) being a burden

Updated: Sep 6, 2022

'... until the shadows lengthen, and the evening comes, and the busy world is hushed, and the fever of life is over, and our work is done...' – John Henry Newman

Terry Martin, a trustee of Southampton charity Caraway, 'promoting and resourcing the spiritual well-being of those in their older years', explains his own personal take on the 'burdensome' nature of dependents as ageing brings extra responsibilities:

Many people, as they reach old age, often say 'I don’t want to be a burden on my family and friends.' This sentiment is understandable, and family and friends respond by saying, somewhat unconvincingly, 'You are not a burden.' Gilbert Meilaender, in a provocative and intriguing essay entitled 'I want to burden my loved ones' argues for the complete opposite. (1)

We cannot escape the intrinsic interdependent nature of our human existence. We are born and grow up in families – moral communities that bring demands and obligations as well as rights and privileges, which shift and develop over time. Parents invest time, energy and money in supporting their growing children, who initially are totally dependent upon them.

Children are normally a burden upon their parents, with their incessant needs and demands. However, the joys of parenthood usually make it easy to bear the burden. In time the tables are turned; the children become independent adults, their parents age and can eventually become an unwanted burden upon them.

Meilaender draws upon a book about medical decision-making for incompetent patients, written by Robert Burt (2), where he made the following point, which carried a double entendre:

'Patients who are unable to make decisions for themselves are often in a state (e.g., severely demented, comatose) in which they become strangers to us. They make us uneasy, and we react with ambivalence. And to say, “I’ll take care of him” about such a patient may be a statement freighted with ambivalence. Burt worries that, no matter how devoted our care, our uneasiness with a loved one who has become a stranger to us may prompt us to do less than we ought to sustain his life.'

Since Burt wrote these words in 1979, euthanasia has been legalised in the Netherlands in 2001 and Belgium in 2002, followed by Luxembourg, Canada, New Zealand, Spain and Colombia. Meilaender goes on to say:

'It is, therefore, essential that we structure the medical decision-making situation in such a way that conversation is forced among the doctor, the medical caregivers, the patient’s family, and perhaps still others, such as pastor, priest, or rabbi. Advance directives, designed to eliminate the need for such extended conversation – lest it should burden loved ones – are, from this perspective, somewhat problematic. They may not force us to deal with our own ambivalence in “taking care of” a loved one who is now a burdensome stranger.'

Getting power of attorney for ageing relatives has much to commend it, but Meilaender provides a helpful cautionary note, directed to both the instigator of this advanced directive and the recipients who, in time, must implement it.

As parents age, it becomes payback time for their children and a more honest response to 'I don’t want to be a burden on my family and friends', might be 'Yes, you are a burden, but it is a burden we gladly bear, and we’ll do what we can do to benefit the life you still have.' And if it is said graciously and sincerely, not grudgingly and resentfully, then so much the better.


1. Gilbert Meilaender, 'I want to burden my loved ones', First Things (March 2010), at

2. Robert A. Burt, Taking Care of Strangers: The rule of law in doctor-patient relations (Free Press, 1979).

Terry Martin




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