Usually it is adult children borrowing from parents; sometimes it’s unemployed or sick parents borrowing from children; but either way, this kind of dependency can put a strain on family relationships. Money can be the hardest thing to give. But doesn’t charity begin at home?

“I think money changes everything,” says a man interviewed by the New York Times — a married father of two young children who, with the co-operation of his wife, is helping to support his 62-year-old, unemployed mother. Following separation from a “partner” (during which the younger couple also helped her financially) she had bought a modest home unit, but then lost her job. Her son has been paying $750 a month for her mortgage and helping with other bills.

Mr. Ley, who is a commercial banker, said the exchange of money has pushed him and his mother apart in subtle ways. But he tries to maintain perspective.

“At some point, you have to step back and say, ‘This is your mother, this is family, this is blood,’ ” Mr. Ley said. “And this is what you do when they have something bad happen to them.”

This may not be a typical situation, although it could become more common if the economy does not pick up and older generations suffer the effects of marital instability. Mr Ley, his wife and children are making a substantial sacrifice for his mother, and one can understand his mixed feelings. But his instincts are surely right: if there is a choice between keep a roof over your mother’s head and putting more in the children’s college fund or in investments, mother surely comes first.

The Times polled 708 unemployed adults nationwide and more than half said they had borrowed money from friends or relatives. Younger adults were more likely to borrow — 61 per cent of those under 45 said they had, compared with a third of those over 45.

Mostly it’s done with great reluctance. In some cases the people stumping up the money (ageing parents, often) have little to spare themselves. And some, perhaps many, or the loans will never be repaid.

So what are the principles at stake here? What about these:

* We have a moral obligation to help our own family members financially if we can, even if it means sacrificing some of our own needs (new carpet this year) or future security (investments, education funds). What is in front of us now obliges us more than what might happen in the future.

* The deficits we are funding should be genuine needs (a modest roof over the head, not a carefree lifestyle for a 25-year-old living at home rent free).

* Whether the needy family member is at fault should not prevent us helping them.

* However, the person borrowing or needing support has an obligation to rectify, where possible, the causes of his/her financial straits.

* In any case, they should make a genuine attempt to repay loans — if not in cash then by services of some kind.

* Debts should be written off when it is clear that there is no ability to repay, rather than make a person a debtor indefinitely.

This is a very practical issue right now — what are your ideas on it?

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet