AGING PARENTS SERIES: Setting Boundaries with Aging Parents

by | Jul 19, 2022 | Extended Family, Life | 24 comments

When Aging Parents Need Help--what do you do?
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How do you set boundaries on how much help you can reasonably give to aging parents?

This week I’m re-running a series I wrote a few years ago. We started  yesterday talking about how parents should really try to help their adult children who will be caring for them one day, by moving closer, getting rid of stuff, and creating a life of their own so they’re not totally dependent on their kids.

It hit close to home with lots of comments here and on social media, and so I’d like to delve a little further into this.

So let’s start with a central question: How much is it reasonable to expect that you will do for aging parents?

Before I can answer that, let’s go back to first principles about what God wants from us.

Biblical Principles About Caring for Relatives

Our primary responsibility on earth is to our families

1 Timothy 5:8 says:

Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.

1 Timothy 5:8

We are to honour and respect and care for our parents; Jesus even rebuked the Pharisees for giving money to the temple that they should have been using to care for their parents! (Mark 7-9-13).

People should reap what they sow, and our well-being matters too.

At the same time, as many people mentioned yesterday, there are limits to this.

Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.
Galatians 6:7

Some of us grew up in abusive homes where parents treated us cruelly, and where parents still do treat us cruelly, and to continue to submit yourself to that is harmful for your own emotional well-being. The Bible talks a lot about shaking the dust off your feet and having nothing to do with fools, and some people may need to leave parents behind. Others may need to draw firm limits.

I can’t speak to what that should look like, because it does vary in each person’s case, but we should not feel that just because someone gave birth to us that this means that we are obligated to help them for life if they also abused us.

Now, some more perspectives:

We are to help each other

Paul writes in Galatians 6:2,

Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.
Galatians 6:2

However, we are also to be responsible for ourselves.

Paul then writes three verses later:

for each one should carry their own load.
Galatians 6:5

Here’s what’s interesting about “load” vs. “burden”: In the Greek, a “load” is something that someone should be expected to carry by themselves. A burden is something which is too heavy for one person to bear.

What do these four principles say when you put them all together? 

First, all of us are responsible to do for ourselves what we can do for ourselves. Nevertheless, people will have burdens that they will need help with. When that happens, we are responsible first to care for the burdens in our own families before we try to carry the burdens of others. This responsibility, however, is not absolute.

Keeping that in mind, then, let’s look at a scenario that was left in the comments to the original version of yesterday’s post:

My in-laws are aging and live in an old home that they are constantly working on. Trouble is, they don’t have the stamina or ability to do as much as they once could. They often mention having my husband come drive the hour and a half to help. But we have our own old farmhouse that needs attention, and multiple young kids who crave time with their Dad when he is not at work! And then there is time to try and connect in our marriage, extra curriculars for kids ( we only have one car) and church obligations. Not to mention we don’t have family who are willing to babysit our kids for a few hours so we can actually go on a date or something. I feel so unchristian but I get so frustrated at the expectation that my husband should be there to help when they are doing things that they are not as capable doing anymore that are not necessities. And the downsizing is key too. We have talked at length at how in the world we are ever going to deal with all the stuff eventually. And as a one, lower income family trying hard to make smart financial decisions, this kind of stuff keeps us up at night. We are often the ones expected to travel for every holiday too to various family members. The gas costs are often a stress for us. We never do live up to the expectations imposed on us and I sometimes wonder if God is so very disappointed in us and thinks we are selfish. 

Okay, great question! I really love Dr. Henry Cloud’s and Dr. John Townsend’s approach in their book Boundaries. They take a biblical look at how to decide BOTH what we say no to and what we say yes to–because when we’re saying yes to something, we’re simultaneously saying no to something else. There is only so much time, energy, and money that each person has, and we have to figure out how to divide it up. So here are some questions to ask:

Are they asking me to share a burden or a load?

You have two families–your nuclear family and your family of origin. When it comes to responsibility, your nuclear family comes first. Your first responsibility is to make sure that your nuclear family has all of its necessities met, and then you make sure that your family of origin has its necessities met.

After that comes all the optionals (extracurricular activities, etc.)

So let’s say your parents are living a fair distance away in a home they are no longer capable of maintaining. Is it reasonable to expect that you will help them to maintain it? 

Quite frankly, I’d say no. Sure, you can visit every month or so and help with a few things, but you can’t take on the whole responsibility.

Your parents have plenty of options: They can sell the house and move into an apartment. They can move closer to you. They can even (potentially!) move in with you. They can hire other people to fix up the house for them.

It is your responsibility (within the limits of your relationship) to make sure that your parents have a decent, comfortable place to live. It is not your responsibility to maintain a house for themselves that they are no longer capable of maintaining themselves, if there are other options available, and especially if that house is far away from where you live.

What they are doing is asking you to bear their loads, not their burdens. And the more people’s loads you bear (the more you do things for others that they could do for themselves), the less energy and time and money you have to bear people’s genuine burdens. That’s why Paul also said in 2 Thessalonians 3:10:

For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.”
2 Thessalonians 3:10

If we’re all busy doing things for people they can do for themselves, then we’re spinning our wheels and we’re not meeting genuine needs.

Are my parents doing all they can for themselves?

It could very well be that your parents are no longer capable of looking after their house. When that day comes, it may be time for a frank discussion about moving into an apartment or a seniors’ residence where some meal preparation is also done.

But it’s not just practical issues parents need help with. Another commenter wrote:

Your 3rd point – have a life of your own – is so smart. My parents have no friends and no hobbies or ministries. They depend on me and my siblings for friendship and entertainment.

Let’s put this one to the test, too. In this case, parents love their kids and just want to spend all of their time with their kids and get all their emotional needs met by their kids. But this puts a lot of pressure on the kids, and often saps energy from the kids. And it’s so guilt inducing! If you know that your mom is horribly lonely if you don’t talk to her, then your relationship becomes one of obligation and guilt rather than something that is freely given and enjoyed.

So ask yourself: Is your mom putting her own “load” on you? She’d prefer not to meet people and not to get out of the house because it’s easier. But then you become responsible for her load. And if you accept that responsibility, you enable her to hibernate in her house. That means that she won’t be giving anything back to her community or her church. She won’t be volunteering. She won’t be encouraging younger women or befriending those of her own generation.

My mom goes to several knitting groups in little towns close to where we live, where for the last ten years she has shared the story of the Kenyan children’s home where we frequently visit (and we’re leading another medical team there this August!). She’s devised a super-easy garter stitch sweater pattern, and over the last decade we’ve taken over 10000 handknit sweaters to the home.

Staying active when you're older

Many of these sweaters are knitted by senior women, who often don’t get out of the house much. But they love the thought that they can still help in a tangible way. One woman in her 80s in England even mails my mom sweaters, and writes her a note about how important it’s become to her that she can still make a difference in the world.

Making a difference when you're a senior citizen

There is so much that seniors can do if they look around for it! You can help point your mom (or mom-in-law) in that direction, but let me be clear: If she chooses not to follow it up, that is not on you. That is on her. You can show her, but you cannot make her make different choices.

(There’s another genuine load parents need to carry–getting their legal affairs in order. We’ll deal with that in a subsequent post!)

What if your parents’ needs become genuine burdens?

I’ve been talking about bearing parents’ loads. But sometimes parents have genuine burdens! They get Alzheimer’s and they need a lot of care. They have mobility issues. They need to move and they need help doing so. These things do require our care. I’m going to talk about that later this week, especially about how we can negotiate things with our siblings when parents need help.

How can we talk about this in a healthy way?

So let’s say that your parents really are making unreasonable demands on you–either they want you to bear their “loads”, or they’re asking you to carry their burdens without lifting a finger to help by agreeing to move, for instance. How can you talk about this?

Reaffirm the relationship

Stress to your parents that you love them, and that you want to have a relationship where you enjoy them and where it’s focused on just being together, rather than always rushing around and stressing and doing errands. You’d like to minimize the burden so that you can still enjoy each other.

Reaffirm that you are there for them

Tell them that you love them and that you do want to care for them and make sure they are never alone.

Be clear that you can only do so much

However, with that being said, you do have a limited amount of time, money, and energy, and you also have other commitments (such as their grandchildren). You can say something like:

I remember how important it was to me, Mom, that you were there for me when I was a teenager and that you got to know so many of my friends. I want to do that with my children, too. But it’s becoming so difficult since we have to spend every weekend visiting you and helping you, and I’m afraid I’m missing out on the relationship that I know you want me to have with my children. So let’s talk about how we can figure out time so that I still am able to be a great mom myself.

Give them choices

Just as you have the ability to say yes or no to things, giving them some choices allows everyone clarity. For instance, you can say:

Mom and Dad, I know you love this house, and I do want you to enjoy where you live. So if you decide to continue living here, I totally understand that. But we are no longer able to help you fix it up. There is too much to be done on our own home, and we still have kids living at home. However, if and when you’re ready to sell the house and move into an apartment, we’d love to have you move closer to us so that we can all enjoy each other more and spend more time together!

Now the ball is in their court. They can decide to stay in the house without your help, or they can decide to move, with your help, and live closer.

But–and here’s the kicker–if they decide NOT to move, then you need to stick to your boundaries and say,

“I know your house needs help, Dad, but unfortunately I’m not in the position to give it. I will gladly help you move into a place that is more manageable, though.”

And keep repeating that.

But what if your parents make you feel guilty for not helping them more?

I know it’s hard, but no one can make you feel guilty. That’s a choice you make.

You do what you feel called to do by God. You carry your own load. You carry your immediate family’s burdens. Carry your parents’ burdens. But do not carry their loads. They should be doing what they are able to do, and if they do not–then they must also bear the consequences of those actions, even if it means that they lose your help.

When Aging Parents Need Help: Setting Boundaries

So that’s how I’d see it! What do you think? Am I being too harsh? Have you had to negotiate these sorts of things? How did your parents take it? Let’s talk in the comments!

The Aging Parents Series

  • Parents: You Owe Your Adult Children a Life
  • Setting Boundaries with Aging Parents (coming soon)
  • Splitting Responsibilities for Aging Parents with Your Siblings (coming soon)
  • Making Sure Aging Parents Have Their Affairs in Order (and you do, too!) (coming soon)
  • When Parents Allow Adult Children to Be Moochers (coming soon)
SDB Coming Soon Desktop

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Author at Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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  1. Amy

    Sheila, thank you for writing on this. This is the situation I am in right now. I am interested to read the one about other siblings helping out, because my older brother does not help out at all. Another thing, I am in a relationship with a man where we could possibly get married one day and I would move away from where I am now, which means I would move away from where my parents are. I am in my late 40’s and he’s in his early 50’s. We’ve never been married, and I am excited about the prospect of this new directions. But then I feel guilty that I would be moving away from them, especially when my brother doesn’t help out. What do I do?

    • Stefanie

      My own opinion is that if this relationship leads to marriage, which would be wonderful for you, that you should take it and move. Your parents will need to make their decisions based on the new situation. You shouldn’t feel guilty. What kind of parent makes their kids sacrifice all of their hopes and dreams to play Personal Care Associate for them? Your parents should be overjoyed that you are happy, wherever that leads.

      • Sheila Wray Gregoire

        I agree! And also–your parents can choose to follow you if they need your help. You cannot put your own long-term happiness and health on hold, or sacrifice so much, in order to help them. That’s not what loving parents would want you to do.

        • Amy

          They wouldn’t. They totally support me and like this guy. I guess its because its been this way since I graduated from college and moved back near them, its a little scary thinking about such a major change. And also if I move to where he lives, my brother will be closer to them than I will be. I guess there might have to be a difficult conversation with my brother at some point.

    • Angharad

      Can I comment from someone who has been in your position (mid 40s, never married, marriage would mean being less available for mother) and who did get married, and say that if this relationship works out in all other respects, then don’t let responsibility for your parents stand in the way.

      1) A loving parent would never want their child to sacrifice their own happiness.

      2) You should not be sacrificing your own happiness to your brother’s selfishness. Unless there is a reason why he can’t help at all (e.g. extreme poor health) it’s time he started sharing the load

      3) You always have the option of having your parents move nearer you if necessary. Just make sure you talk through all the possibilities with your OH to ensure you are on the same page.

  2. M

    I’ll add this- the more parents help bear their kids’ burdens, the more kids will want to reciprocate. We have been a military and forced to move many times. My husband’s parents have always been there for us, helping us through transition after transition, flying or driving to us often to support us and have a close relationship with our kids. My parents- not so much. My mom came to help me when I was pregnant and sick and after my two kids were born, but since then my parents have made very little effort to have a relationship with their grandkids or to travel to see us, even though they are both healthy and independent and it is far easier for them to travel than for us. The result of all this is that now that we are out of the military, we are planning to move to the same city as my husband’s parents because we want to be close to them, and have our kids grow up near them. They are both very active now, but we fully intend to be there to care for them when they grow more elderly and in need of help. It’s so true what you say- you reap what you sow!

  3. Jane Eyre

    Great post!

    So much of this cycle through generations. One set of parents requires a lot of time and financial support; their adult children never have time for themselves, don’t develop friends and hobbies, and struggle to save money. Decades later, those adult children, now very old, need financial and emotional support from their own children. They couldn’t save as much as they wanted to, don’t have a strong network, never figured out what their own interests are… and the cycle continues.

    • A2bbethany

      Breaking cycles of behavior in family generations is hard! But when you are doing it, and fighting the patterns ingrained in you, it’s exciting! But it’s not something you can get comfy in. Or you start sliding back.

      So I’m breaking several cycles. Anger management, fear of authority figures(any kind really), and a refusal to “cover sins in love”.
      I don’t think they realized how catching feelings are.

  4. Diane

    Thanks so much for writing on this topic! My question involves when families take this to the next level. In my family my boundaries were not respected. For example, when I had obligations to my job or nuclear family, my parents would enlist the help of flying monkeys, usually my sister (who was a licensed counselor!) who would call and nag/try to guilt trip/attack my character by saying I’m being selfish and difficult. The calls and even in-person confrontations would continue. I kept my boundaries most of the time but paid a high price for that. Repeating the boundary while not jading didn’t work. Instead it escalated the tension with my family (parents, brother, sister) Any suggestions??

    • Angharad

      No suggestions, but sending sympathetic hugs. I’ve been there with my mother enlisting her church leaders to put the guilt trip on me. It’s draining. I hope you find a way through xxx

    • Rhonda

      U could hard nose it & get them for harassment & get a court order barring any of them from contacting u & also not allow any contact via 3rd parties. I’d also get a restraining order since they’re confronting u in person. I’d also contact the sister’s supervisor, because what she’s doing is unethical. Being “ugly” is the only thing that gets through to some people. Best wishes.

  5. Phil

    Hey sheila. I remember this series and I remember talking to Grace about this stuff and we’ve had to encounter this stuff since you’re original Series. (You gotta love voice to text). Siri instead of series. Anyway this series was super helpful then and I even recall some of my comments. One I think was along these lines: Can I please box up your posts and send them to my Mom and my In-laws Anonymously?😬

  6. Angharad

    There are two HUGE obstacles in the way of setting boundaries, at least where I’m from, which I don’t think you mentioned.

    1) The assumption that daughters (particularly single ones) will sacrifice their own lives for their parents. In my mother’s family culture, it was traditional that the youngest daughter never married and stayed at home to care for her parents. If the youngest daughter died, then the next youngest was expected to give up her life and move in with her parents (unless she was married, when she was expected to move her parents in with her) It’s really hard to shift that attitude when it has lasted for generations (and it’s still around – I’m thinking of the lady who commented she wasn’t sure she had the right to marry if it made her less available to care for her parents, even though her brother isn’t doing a thing for them)

    2) The assumption from the church that children will sacrifice everything for their parents.

    It was several years after my mother’s house became too much for her that she moved. Every time I persuaded her to consider sheltered accommodation, she’d mention it to someone from her church and they’d tell her ‘you’re too young to move to one of those places. Get your daughter to help a bit more’. They’d then ring me to berate me for being ‘selfish’. They only saw my mother when she was happily chatting away at church coffee mornings. They didn’t have to deal with her ringing up in tears at 3am because the lightbulb had gone in her bathroom and she couldn’t replace it, or because she thought she heard a prowler outside… They didn’t have to spend three years working every single hour of every single day without a break – I was either working to earn a living, or working at my mother’s house. My physical & mental health were both wrecked by the time she finally moved, and a large part of that is thanks to church people, who kept urging my mother to stay in her too large, too isolated house.

    It’s hard enough setting boundaries with a parent. It’s doubly hard when you have church leaders haranguing you for setting those boundaries!

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Very true, Angharad!

      I hope this is a good message for all of us to be careful how we counsel older people around us. We don’t have the full picture!

    • C

      Hi Angharad. You have a great comment. Often we don’t consider the cultural considerations that come with taking care of the elderly.

      I had an aunt who was engaged to be married. She was told she was forbidden to marry. I have to think that this was in part to force her in to taking care of her parents.

      Then later, after her parents died, there was no real consideration of the cost that taking care of her parents had on her life. She married later in life, after it was too late to have children of her own.

      I have been in a somewhat similar situation with my mom. Church people and others should refrain from giving advice when they don’t know the reality.

  7. Kelly

    My late MIL lived with us—we bought my ex’s childhood home from her & she remained in the home. It was rough.

    Especially once the severe dementia came along. We ended up having to move her into assisted living as she could no longer be trusted to be left home alone when we’d take our son to his sporting events. Baseball/Football/Basketball & was gone for several hours at a time. Came home 1 night to a house smelling like gas as she hadn’t turned the gas stove off all the way so gas was leaking from the burners. Another time, she didn’t turn the water faucet all the way off in the bathroom sink & flooded the bathroom & part of the kitchen as the bathroom was just off the kitchen.

    She lived in the Alzheimer’s wing of that facility until she passed away at 94 in Aug 2017.

  8. Anon

    Sheila do you have any thoughts or plans to address boundaries when aging parents move in with their adult children? It’s something I have a lot of (painful) experience with and I don’t see it talked about often in these conversations. Would love your thoughts!

  9. C

    My grandparents (now passed away) had 4 children: my mother, her sister and 2 brothers. One brother died when he was 25, my mom died 21 years ago, therefore one brother and one sister are still alive today, my uncle and my aunt. My aunt had disagreements with my grandma and were on and off on speaking terms until my aunt finally quit visiting and calling my grandma or taking care of her in any way, argumenting that her mother is psychologically exhausting her, that she is toxic and what not.

    My uncle was the only one of the children that had any relationship with his mother, visiting from time to time but not helping her in real matters.
    And there was me, the granddaughter, that my uncles (both couples) required tacitly and once verbally patronizingly that I stepped into my mother’s role (dead for 21 years now) and chipped in equally to taking care of my grandma, but that I be the first and foremost caregiver since my mom was the eldest.
    They never once, as siblings, met normally to discuss their mother’s situation (old, Alzheimer incipient and powerless to do things in her apartment). Everything went by inertia, and both of them hoped that their mother would die at once and they inherit the apartment. They didn’t want to commit her to a home because they would have lost the apartment (taken by the home for taking care of her).

    I am working therefore unavailable during the week, my uncles are pensioners. I called my uncle’s wife (he is chronically narcissist and passive aggressive) and said that I would go on Saturdays to clean her house, help her with the bath, pedicure, haircut. They would be responsible with the doctor, food and any other things. Agreed, until, not late, they started ditching their duties (doctor visits, medicines, bill paying), pretexting that they are tired, that they have a house in the countryside, they have a daughter, a grandchild, bla, bla, until the only thing they did for her was bringing her food twice a week (which meant a max 5 min stay) and nothing more!

    My grandma had indeed a strong personality, survived the II WW, but still, she did not deserve such a treatment from her children. With the advancement of Alzheimer, it was really a challenge to be around her, BUT I made it and did everything possible in order not to let her live in misery and squalor. I was exhausted and really overwhelmed, it became an ordeal to go to her place on Saturdays. But I did that anyway. I also asked one of my cousins to help and we made it, we even came up with the money to berry my grandma, my uncles said they didn’t have savings! My ass, they didn’t! They didn’t want to!

    Eventually, when the apartment was sold and we had to split the money equally, as the law says, my uncles had the audacity to gossip about me and tell neighbours that they expected me to renounce the share that I deserved from my grandparents’ apartment (my mother’s share). So, I called my uncles, drew a line and gave them a piece of my mind about everything that had happened. In conclusion, we no longer speak to one another, we have no relationship whatsoever and I am fine with this.
    I’ve realised they are manipulative, opportunistic and mean! Well, not with me, I know when and how to set boundaries and make people respect them. My uncles believed that if I go to church I am the village idiot that is humble and does everything that is told to them. Well, I teach and counsel teenagers and adults, so I recognize manipulation, envy and narcissism when I see them.

  10. anotherc

    Okay I see that there is more than one “C” commenting here so I changed my username for this comment.
    I think there can be a spectrum on how easy or difficult it is to take care of an aging parent.
    If they are generally pleasant–it will be much easier. If they are difficult people they likely won’t change in old age and dementia won’t make it any better.
    A parent who lives with you but needs minimal help and is continent of bowel and bladder is going to be much easier to care for than a parent that might need assistance around the clock, particularly if they are incontinent. Not pleasant to talk about but that is the reality.

  11. Katiek

    My in-laws retirement is my biggest nightmare. They saved $0 for retirement and are completely convinced we should be paying for their entire retirement (my husband is an only child). We have made it very clear that we are not going to do so. We have been telling them this for decades, it’s not like we sprung it on them, but they’re very insistent that they are entitled to our money and they just didn’t save anything, at all. Their net worth is negative.

    Could we support them? Well, we have 2 professional salaries and since we know many people living and raising kids on one of our incomes then I guess so? But why am I going to go to work 60 hours a week to support people that chose not to save (or not to work, in my mother in laws case). The latest guilt trip is my kids college education. They don’t think we should be paying for that when they’re quickly becoming destitute. But because of our income my kids don’t get any financial aid, at all. If we don’t pay, they will end up with massive debt (even our local state schools would easily cost them close to 6 figures).

    We can’t even take a vacation without people we know (our pastors, friends, their friends) talking to us about how unbiblical it is that we can go to Hawaii, but they’re struggling to keep their house. There is no chance they will live with us. It would be the end of my marriage, and I don’t feel an obligation when they are the ones who made the choices that got them to this point. Theyshouldn’t be struggling to keep their house but they immediately re-mortgaged their paid off house to have access to the equity. It’s hard though because they don’t live flashy lives, instead they’ve spent money on crazy health scams (my mother in law has some health issues, but she has spent hundreds of thousands chasing “miracle fixes” for a condition doctors say she has to live with) or on failed business ventures (so many multi-level marketing schemes), and I don’t even know what else, but it’s not anything flashy. It’s very hard though to be a Christian in a small town and draw those boundaries.

  12. DW

    Whilst I love this, it’s also easier said than done. My father in law is quite ill and aged, MIL still doing reasonably but as a result of a lifetime of bad financial decisions we recently had to take over their mortgage or they would lose their house and have no where to live and the stress and disruption would quite likely kill my FIL. So now we are significantly financially impacted and I’m struggling not to be resentful. And you are so right, because we are stuck carrying this load it means we are no longer in a position to help another family member carry their burden. We could have let them be homeless because it’s a result of their own bad choices but that doesn’t feel like the right thing to do either.

  13. Nina

    This is good, but I have so many friends dealing with parents who would never take your advice. The struggle is real. My mom was an only child and she moved near me when she was ready to downsize because she realized how helpful that would be. My mother in law only moved when a crisis (fall, broken hip and unable to care for self) pushed her to decide. They are now both 10 minutes from us (instead of 2 hours and 7 hours) and live in the same senior living community with variable levels of care, so I believe God orchestrated this.

  14. T

    Any chance your mom would share that sweater pattern? 😀


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