Here are just a few movies, books, and essays that we’ve found to be illuminating on the topics of illness, aging, and dying, and the conversations that happen around those life passages. In the comments section, please add any interesting or inspiring media you’ve come across that helped your thinking or discussions on these topics.
PBS Frontline BEING MORTAL documentary
DVD or transcript at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/film/being-mortal/
(link includes related programming)
FRONTLINE follows renowned New Yorker writer and Boston surgeon Atul Gawande as he explores the relationships doctors have with patients who are nearing the end of life. In conjunction with Gawande’s bestselling book, Being Mortal (see below), the film investigates the practice of caring for the dying, and shows how doctors—himself included—are often remarkably untrained, ill-suited and uncomfortable talking about chronic illness and death with their patients.
HOW TO DIE IN OREGON
An intimate and compelling 2011 HBO documentary following the lives of several Oregonians and their families, doctors, and friends as the terminally ill women and men, at peace with their fate, exercise their right to request medical aid in dying. The film also covers the personal stories behind the passage of the end-of-life proposition in the neighboring state of Washington. A must-watch if you are interested in the topic of medical aid in dying and how the much-monitored process actually works.
A 45-minute HBO documentary that chronicles one man’s crusade for a death with dignity initiative.
Medical aid-in-dying—where a terminally ill adult with less than 6 months to live requests a prescription to end his or her life at the time of her or his choosing (or never)—has yet to be depicted in a feature film. The below movies depict other situations around end of life, particularly the idea of euthanasia and “who’s life is it, anyway?” (For a good essay on the clear distinctions between “euthanasia” and “medical aid in dying,” read this by Charmaine Mansala.)
THE SEA INSIDE
Winner of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film of 2004, The Sea Inside is a fact-based story of Ramón Sampedro, a quadriplegic man who petitions the Spanish government for his right to die. Without the use of his body for 27 years, Sampedro desires above all else the right to be euthanized. His story is taken on by an association that goes by the name of “Die with Dignity” which is how he has a voice in court.
Winner of the 2013 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film of the Year
From an Amazon reviewer:
For people that watch this movie, be prepared to watch a true depiction of life as a caregiver for someone you deeply love and learn what a terminal illness is really like. The writers of this film, the actors and the director deserve so much praise and appreciation for telling a story that many can relate to. Watching “true love” be demonstrated at it’s most difficult point in a relationship in the form of compassion, understanding, patience and even exhaustion was so real I was taken back to my own situation with my husband. If honesty, insight and learning are what you love in a movie, then this is the one.
Based on the 1999 Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Margaret Edson, WIT features the Academy Award winning actress Emma Thompson in a movie directed by Academy award winning director Mike Nichols. Vivian Bearing is an English professor with a biting wit that educates but also alienates her students. With her teaching and life both rigidly under control, Vivian would never let down her defenses, until the day comes when they are taken don for her. Diagnosed with a devastating illness, Vivian agrees to undergo a series of procedures that are brutal, extensive, and experimental. For eight months her life must take an uncharted course. No longer a teacher, but a subject for others to study. Vivian Bearing is about to discover a fine line between life and death that can only be walked with wit.
MILLION DOLLAR BABY
Somber but riveting 2004 film directed by and starring Clint Eastwood and Hilary Swank (who won the Academy Award for Best Actress for this role). Wanting to learn from the best, aspiring boxer Maggie Fitzgerald wants Frankie Dunn to train her. At the outset he flatly refuses saying he has no interest in training a girl. Frankie leads a lonely existence, alienated from his only daughter and having few friends. She’s rough around the edges but shows a lot of grit in the ring and he eventually relents. Maggie not only proves to be the boxer he always dreamed of having under his wing but a friend who fills the great void he’s had in his life. Maggie’s career skyrockets but an accident in the ring leads her to ask Frankie for one last favor.
The film raises a lot of issues about quality of life and death, and brushes close to our topic of medical aid in dying laws, with some key distinctions. The medical aid in dying laws do not apply to people who are living with a physical disability – unless they are terminally ill with a prognosis of six months or less to live and capable of making an informed medical decision. See our discussion below about a similar topic in the novel Me Before You.
BEING MORTAL: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande
Sheri Fink – New York Times Book Review:
“Gawande writes that members of the medical profession, himself included, have been wrong about what their job is. Rather than ensuring health and survival, it is “to enable well-being.” If that sounds vague, Gawande has plenty of engaging and nuanced stories to leave the reader with a good sense of what he means…Being Mortal is a valuable contribution to the growing literature on aging, death and dying. It contains unsparing descriptions of bodily aging and the way it often takes us by surprise. Gawande is a gifted storyteller, and there are some stirring, even tear-inducing passages here. The writing can be evocative…. The stories give a dignified voice to older people in the process of losing their independence. We see the world from their perspective, not just those of their physicians and worried family members.”
ON MY OWN by Diane Rehm
In a deeply personal and moving book, the beloved NPR radio host speaks out about the long drawn-out death (from Parkinson’s) of her husband of fifty-four years, and of her struggle to reconstruct her life without him. John’s unnecessarily extended death—he begged to be helped to die—culminated in his taking matters into his own hands, simply refusing to take water, food, and medication. His heroic actions spurred Diane into becoming a kind of poster person for the “right to die” movement that is all too slowly taking shape in our country. With the brave determination that has characterized her whole life, she is finding a meaningful new way to contribute to the world.
Her book—as practical as it is inspiring—will be a help and a comfort to the recently bereaved, and a beacon of hope about the possibilities that remain to us as we deal with our own approaching mortality.
WHEN BREATH BECOMES AIR by Paul Kalanithi
#1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • For readers of Atul Gawande, Andrew Solomon, and Anne Lamott, this inspiring, exquisitely observed memoir finds hope and beauty in the face of insurmountable odds as an idealistic young neurosurgeon attempts to answer the question What makes a life worth living?
At the age of thirty-six, on the verge of completing a decade’s worth of training as a neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. One day he was a doctor treating the dying, and the next he was a patient struggling to live. And just like that, the future he and his wife had imagined evaporated. When Breath Becomes Air chronicles Kalanithi’s transformation from a naïve medical student “possessed,” as he wrote, “by the question of what, given that all organisms die, makes a virtuous and meaningful life” into a neurosurgeon at Stanford working in the brain, the most critical place for human identity, and finally into a patient and new father confronting his own mortality.
A BITTERSWEET SEASON: Caring for Our Aging Parents — and Ourselves by Jane Gross
A beautifully written memoir and self-help book by New Yorker Jane Gross, on being a daughter, a sister, and a caregiver.
PASSAGES IN CAREGIVING: Turning Chaos Into Confidence by Gail Sheehy
GRATITUDE by Oliver Sacks
Review in the Washington Post:
“A series of heart-rending yet ultimately uplifting essays….A lasting gift to readers….unlike other writers who have reported from the front lines of mortality, Sacks did not focus on his illness, his medical ordeal or spirituality, but on “what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life—achieving a sense of peace within oneself. Sacks not only achieved that peace but managed to convey it beautifully in these essays. He found positive ways to think about everything, including his growing frailty: Perhaps, he suggests in the book’s final pages, he was in the Sabbath of his life, “when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.” His tender book leaves readers with a similar sense of tranquility and, indeed, gratitude.” —
ME BEFORE YOU by Jojo Moyes
This popular novel (and now 2016 film) has sparked controversy and debate, because one of the characters seeks to end his life due to being paralyzed. (The above isn’t really a spoiler since from the earliest pages of the book that’s a main topic of discussion.) With the public light now shining on the issue of euthanasia, unfortunately, some people who oppose aid-in-dying laws are trying to paint them with the euthanasia brush.
Please read this excellent essay by about the differences between what the character of the book is seeking (euthanasia in Europe) vs. the aid in dying legislation that is in effect here in the U.S.
As you read in the above essay, the main difference is that medical aid in dying is not available to people who are living with a physical disability – unless they are terminally ill with a prognosis of six months or less to live and capable of making an informed medical decision. That is, the main character’s disabilities would not qualify him for aid in dying in the U.S. The same applies to many of the films, like “Million Dollar Baby” and “The Sea Inside,” mentioned above.
Have you heard people discussing this book or movie? What seem to be the main issues? And how have you responded, if at all? Leave your thoughts in the comments.
STILL ALICE by Lisa Genova
Lisa Genova is an American neuroscientist and author who self-published her debut novel Still Alice (2007), about a Harvard University professor who suffers early onset Alzheimer’s disease. The professor has plans to kill herself when things get bad, but life take a different turn. The book gained popularity and was acquired by Simon & Schuster and today there are over 2.6 million copies in print, and it has been translated into 37 languages. The book was adapted into a film in 2014 and won the Academy Award for Best Actress for Julianne Moore’s highly acclaimed performance as Alice Howland.