Dear Family Advisor

My father wastes money on younger women who are just taking advantage of him -- then he moons like a teenager over breakups, and blames me

Last updated: Feb 02, 2009

My 70-year-old father will only date women below age 50. He meets them over the Internet and spends countless dollars paying their rents and car payments, taking them on vacations, buying their kids stuff, and promises to "write them into the will" -- while he refuses to help his own family with basics like light bills or college. When we confront him, he says we're jealous and that he wants to die with the last dollar in his pocket and strap his kids with the debts.

He acts like he's 17 -- uses terms like "going steady," cries when there's a breakup, throws temper tantrums. Once he hit his 15-year-old granddaughter in the face with a suitcase because some woman had told him it was "over." How do I protect myself and my children from him? We don't want to get stuck with his credit card bills after he dies. (I'm a single mother.) I am just sick of the drama, tired of getting blamed for "breakups" and his unhappiness, and worried about the money, too.

You have every right to be frustrated. It sounds like your father is going through a second adolescence. And just like with a teenager, his behavior can be disconcerting to everyone around. You may not be able to stop his choices -- he is an adult -- but you do have a choice about how he treats you and your family.

First and most important: It’s just plain wrong for him to hit your daughter. He needs to know he crossed a line and you fully expect him never to behave this way again. Under no circumstances would I allow him around her alone in the future.

Do everything you can to help him get a full examination by a neurologist or geriatric care specialist. His behavior may be a precursor to a neurological disorder. Try writing a timeline of his behaviors over the past few years and also note any lifestyle or physical changes that may have occurred. (You can also start with a family doctor, but if your concerns are dismissed, be persistent.)

Is this behavior new since the death of your mother? Some people react to grief in unexpected ways. I once asked a friend who went through a post-divorce “risky” phase why she'd engaged in these less-than-healthy relationships. “I was hurting so badly that I don’t think I cared what happened to me,” she said. That gave me real insight into why people do things even when they know they're not good for them.

It's healthiest for you to give up unrealistic expectations of your dad. By letting go of the kind of relationship you dreamt of, you can begin to accept things as they are. I know it would be nice if he helped you financially, but his behavior isn’t going to change easily, if ever.

Legally, you aren't responsible for a parent’s debt as long as you aren't co-signed on any loans or don't have your name on his house, bank, credit, or other accounts. If you do, you may want to remove them in case things continue to spiral downward. After your father dies, you won't be responsible for his unpaid debts, either. Be aware, though, that if your father still has assets when he dies, and you and your siblings inherit those assets (your father's "estate"), your father's creditors can come looking for payment out of that estate -- though not out of your or your siblings' other funds.

Focus your energy on making sure that you are healthy and strong, and a good example to your children. It’s really true that doing what’s best for you is usually what's best for everyone. Being a single mom is challenging enough, and most of your time, money, and energy should be spent on creating a good life for your kids.

As part of this, you might need to pull away from your dad emotionally. As long as you listen to his drama, you're providing oxygen to the fire. When he starts whining, don’t engage in the conversation. Put on music. Change the subject. Or just be silent. Let him know that his behavior isn’t healthy. Reassure him that you'd like for him to find a lasting relationship with someone stable and committed, but you simply can’t get on another rollercoaster ride. He has to get the message that you love him and want him to be safe (relationship-wise and financially) but that ultimately, he has to choose that reality for himself.

I hope that as you create new boundaries for yourself, you can still love your dad beyond the frustration. As infuriating as his behavior is, he still needs you (whether he can acknowledge that or not).