Caring Currents

"One More Thing": Lessons in Planning Ahead From Actor Peter Falk

Last updated: Dec 16, 2008

Lieutenant Columbo
Image by ostromentsky used under the creative commons attribution license.

It's sad to hear the news that actor Peter Falk, the former  "Columbo" star, has Alzheimer's disease, according to his daughter, Catherine Falk. You might remember he played a detective in a rumpled raincoat who pretended to be absent-minded as a ruse to fool informants. Then he'd sharply snare them by pausing to casually say, "Just one more thing...."

Now he's unwittingly doing fans and their families a favor by highlighting the importance of doing "just one more thing": Planning ahead.

Catherine Falk has filed for conservatorship, claiming her father no longer recognizes familiar places and things, has had driving trouble, and is at risk for financial fraud. It's one of those things most of us don't think about until we're in the thick of it -- and yet should.

What is conservatorship?

Conservatorship is essentially guardianship of an adult, in which a court appoints a person to make decisions for someone who is incapable. That can include  decisions about everyday care as well as legal and financial matters, and a careful recording of decisions and expenditures that are reported back to the judge.

Pros and cons? legal expert Barbara Kate Repa explains that conservatorships give clear legal authority to deal with third parties. But they also can be time-consuming and expensive to set up, since they involve the court system.  And they also require presenting evidence of failed mental capacity, which can be embarrassing to those involved.

Is there a better way?

That's where the planning ahead comes in. People can avoid the step of conservatorship by taking steps before incapacity and setting up things like power of attorney for finances and healthcare, a living will, and a living trust.

How do I get my loved ones to plan ahead for legal, financial, and healthcare decisions?

  • Appeal to pennypinching: "Mom, let's get these papers in order. It will save money because if you don't have them now, it will be expensive for me to do without you if you're ever hurt or sick."
  • Emphasize how it helps you. "Want to do me a big favor, Sweetie? Help me figure out what you'd like to have happen with your affairs if you ever get sick."
  • Be an example. Make your own future decisions and say, "Hey, listen to what we just did; you should do it too and I can show you how."
  • Say it's the new thing. "I know you might not have done this with Grandma, but everybody's doing it now/"
  • Suggest a neutral third party. Sometimes a lawyer, financial planner, or family friend can ease the awkwardness of discussing finances and health care.

Even if your parent or spouse already has dementia, he may still have the capacity to work with you to establish these things -- you just have to move faster.