Dear Family Advisor

My mother is gambling away every last penny -- and her financial independence. What should I do?

Last updated: May 05, 2008

Since my father's death two years ago, my 75-year-old mother's casual interest in bingo has turned into an obsession. Now her life revolves around bingo and casino gambling. She lives in Florida, where there's no shortage of gambling seniors to keep her company. And it's not a matter of if this situation will damage her financial independence, but when.

Because we had a miserable relationship when I was growing up, I have a terrible relationship with her now. I can't talk to her about the weather, much less about something that will clearly end up in a fight. But I'm also the executor of her will. Is it my responsibility to intervene as the executor -- and as her daughter? Or should I stay out of it, since it's her money?

You're not alone -- senior gambling is a touchy issue for many caregivers. And normally I'd encourage you to talk to your mother and try to help her find a way out of her addiction. But if that's not a possibility for you, given the history of your relationship, you need to protect yourself first and then do what you can for her.

No doubt your mother is hurting since her husband's death, and she's comforting herself with an addiction. Gambling may have even given her a new social network. It fills a void for her, as it does for many elders who feel lonely and "useless," and you may not be able to stop her. Ultimately, we're all responsible for our own decisions and actions. So you need to be okay with whatever decisions you make, regardless of the outcome. This is tricky because the decisions will be difficult and the outcome may not be rosy.

First, since you're the executor of her will, contact an attorney about your legal responsibilities and financial obligations. Make sure you speak to a lawyer in Florida, because each state handles wills and personal matters differently.

Second, if you can't intervene in this situation, are there any other family members or friends who can? How about someone in her religious community?

Third, you'll need to decide what you can live with. Think about how you would deal with these possible scenarios:

  • Your mother not only gambles all her money away but also goes into debt. Will you then be responsible for her debt?
  • Her health fails and she has to enter a state-run facility. Are you okay with that?
  • You need to become involved with her eventual care needs. How involved do you plan on being -- both in terms of your time and, if necessary, money?
  • The solution seems to be to remove her from her current living situation. Is she capable of building a new life in a new setting? How involved would you have to be, and would she resent your intrusion?
  • She eventually comes to you and asks for help or care -- many elderly people try to make peace with their families before they leave this world. How do you plan on handling this if it happens?

This last question is an important one. Some relationships are simply beyond repair, and you may have had to break bonds with your mother for your own mental health. If this is the case, accept that you are being a responsible daughter and caregiver by getting involved on whatever level you can. You're not obligated to step back into a toxic relationship.

But I also encourage you to examine whether there's any hope for reaching some sort of reconciliation with your mother before her death, even just within your own heart. For your sake, I hope that you can at least love her from a distance -- an emotional distance. However painful your past and your relationship with her, forgiveness and acceptance are part of healing. If you can find a way to them, it may give you -- perhaps both of you --- a sense of personal peace.