Friday, November 30, 2012

Movies about Older Adults Active in the Dying Process

Photo by OldOnliner
As a student of the aging process, I regularly watch films that feature older adults.  Mature people live, love and have amazing adventures. But all people--especially the old--experience the dying process.  

At the bottom of this post are films that depict the dying of young adults and children. Also, some of these films take the point of view of the bereft, so sometimes the death occurs days, weeks, or months before the film or documentary starts. 

I value reading nonfiction books about death written by gerontologists, spiritual guides, doctors, social workers, psychologists and other experts. However, as a retired English teacher, I find great truths conveyed through creative works such as novels, memoirs, plays, poems, paintings, and film. 

These works might help viewers prepare for or process the death of a parent, a spouse or another loved one.

Last updated March 2020 to add The Farewell (2019):

The Farewell (2019). An extended family follows Chinese tradition and does not tell the matriarch that she has cancer with a terminal diagnosis. Her American granddaughter has a difficult time keeping up the charade of not conveying this information when traveling to China to bid her grandmother farewell. 

2. Paddleton (2019). The main characters are two midlife men rather than late life, but it's a good film for showing the attitudes and reactions that people might have to a terminal diagnosis for themselves and for a friend. 

3. End Game (2018) This 40 minute documentary profiles the last weeks of life for five people: Mitra, Pat, Thekla, Kym, and Bruce. It's not just about end-of-life care. It asks questions about how to retain one's humanity and how to approach things we cannot control and how to face the unknown.  Review

4. Defining Hope (2017). This film does include a child and a young adult on hospice, but there are five or six people on hospice who are midlife or older. One of the people in the second half of life is living with dementia, and the rest have cancer--including 50-year-old Diane Ryan, a nurse. 

5. Frontline: Being Mortal (2015).  Atul Gawande realizes that he does not know how to discuss a terminal diagnosis with his patients, so he talks with a palliative care physician. This documentary shows three people and their health care workers going through end-of-life care. It also refers to Guwande's own father and to a now deceased patient whom Gawande feels he betrayed with uninformed care.

6. Sweet Bean (2015). A Japanese film about a woman who wants purpose in life despite her significant health challenges. It shows a variety of responses by others towards her diagnosis, since it's a bit controversial.

7. Life Itself (2014).  This documentary is a tribute to film critic Robert Ebert, contextualized with the treatments he underwent for various forms of cancer, notably ones that required surgeries on his face and neck, causing dramatic changes to his appearance and his ability to talk, chew, and swallow.

8. Lullaby (2014).  Jonathan hasn't spoken to his family for years, but he learns that his dad is ending a 12 year battle with cancer by having life support removed.  The film focuses on the last day Jonathan has with his dad, mom and sister, much of it fraught with tension but with some tender moments.

9. Amour (2012). This French-language film shows a mature couple working together to create a new dynamic once the wife has a stroke.  They have an adult child, a daughter, who comes to visit once in a while. However, that daughter lives a plane flight away.  Relying just on each other, the couple soon becomes overwhelmed, especially since the wife's health continues to deteriorate. 

10. The Beginners (2011).  The director bases this film on his own experience of how his mother's death emboldened his father to coming out late. And then how his father became terminally ill. The point of view character also has some romantic adventures, so the film isn't squarely about dying, but it's a key part of the last quarter of the film. Review

11. Frontline: Facing Death (2010). This documentary shows a handful of people with terminal illness and how they, their family members, and their health care professionals negotiate the gray areas in what life-saving techniques to administer, to deny, or to remove. 

12. How to Die in Oregon (2010). This documentary describes physician-assisted suicide and shows a few people making that decision and how their friends and family members respond. 

13. Poetry (2010). in Japanese. This is slow and artsy, and it spends a lot of time on a conflict involving high school students that the protagonist (a grandmother with cancer) observes. But I found it powerful in how the protagonist thinks about the legacy she will leave in how she uses the last few months of her life. 

14. You Don't Know Jack (2010) An HBO biopic starring Al Pacino about Dr. Jack Kevorkian. 

15. Goodbye Solo (2009).  A young man befriends a depressed middle aged man and tries to inspire him to embrace the simple joys of life. 

16. Summer Hours (2008)A French film that starts with a 75 year old woman expressing her wishes for how here estate should be managed after her death. The majority of the film shows three adult children dealing with the practical and emotional work of managing their mother's house, furniture, artwork and other possessions.   This film would interest art aficionados. 

17. Departures (2008). Because of budget cuts, a cellist loses his job with an orchestra.  Largely by accident, he secures a job as an apprentice to a funeral home director.  This Japanese film with subtitles shows a variety of views on death and dying.  The lead character himself also must work out some tension with his own father, whom he has not seen for years. The film is poignant and lyric with a gorgeous soundtrack featuring the cello.  Winner of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film for the year of its release.

18. Cherry Blossoms (2008) This German-language film depicts the grief of a person in midlife who has lost a spouse and then later connects with a young adult who lost her mother. Set primarily in Japan. 

19. Evening (2007)  This film focuses on a life review as a key aspect of the dying process. In this film, the dying parent is the mother, played by Vanessa Redgrave. The adult children are daughters played by Toni Colette and Natasha Richardson.  The deathbed drama is complicated since the grown sisters have unresolved conflicts carried forward from childhood.  Nevertheless, a large part of the film consists of flashbacks as the dying woman reviews events that she labeled as regrets but that she needs to reframe in order to achieve a measure of peace before dying.  Many people minister to the dying woman: her daughters, a long-time friend from college, a home health aid, and a supernatural (or merely imaginary?) spiritual mentor.

20. The Savages (2007).  The film shows siblings, Wendy and Jon Savage, responding to their father's tentative diagnosis of Parkinson's Disease. The have been detached from him for decades, but now they must consider his needs, decide on whether or not to place him in a skilled nursing center, and talk with him about an advanced directive and funeral plans. Their father's failing health in the few months prior to his death throws them into a crisis where unresolved feelings create a lot of tension between them. Their relationship with each other is depicted in more detail than their relationship with their father. 

21. Frontline: Suicide Tourist (2007). This documentary shares the last few months of Craig Ewart's life--a middle aged man living with ALS--as he makes the decision to travel to Switzerland for physician-assisted suicide. 

22. Two Weeks (2006) is a more realistic depiction of the day-to-day challenges families face in the last two weeks of a parent's life.  Director Steven Stockman attended his own mother's death, which happened at home with his siblings in attendance as well.  Sally Fields plays the matriarch of the Bergman clan, whose four adult children have gathered to help their mother through the dying process. Like Evening, the adult children have unresolved conflicts that arise.  The situation is further complicated by spouses and children on the scene.

23. Frontline: Living Old (2006).  The focus of this documentary is more about the frailty, dependence, and loneliness of late life as caused by advances in medicine, the slowing birthrate, and the fragmentation of families by moving to pursue education and jobs.  Nevertheless, it does show people moving closer to death by an avalanche of chronic diseases that eventually leads to death. 

24. Checking Out (2005) shares many aspects of Two Weeks because the families in both films are Jewish, the adult children have unresolved conflict, and a handful of spouses and children add another layer of relationships. Checking Out, however, contains more comedy (granted dark comedy) amid some very dramatic moments.  The characters talk at great length about their father's upcoming death. These conversations can offer viewers some insight into issues of the active dying process. 

25. Big Fish (2003) features Billy Crudup as a young profession who travels home to visit his dying father, played by Albert Finney.  While the film has some fantastical elements typical of a Tim Burton film, it also delves into the complexities of the father-son relationship.  Finney's character uses this time to perform a life review, which any hospice worker will tell you is a common activity pursued by those active in the dying process.  Aided by the magic of  Hollywood, Burton transports the viewers to key events in the older man's life as he aims to leave a legacy for his son.  However, the son resists accepting how his father defines his own life. This is a great movie to help adult children prepare to listen to how their parents see themselves and how they want to be validated, loved and accepted despite their excesses.

26. Barbarian Invasions (2003). A French-Canadian film about an aging professor dying of cancer. He's conducted several affairs over his life and failed to achieve in his career, probably due to his hedonism. His son comes to Canada from London.  The son helps to make his father more comfortable and encourages friends to visit, which leads to a "Big Chill" feel to the second half of the film. 

27. Wit (2001). Based on the 1998 Pulitzer-prize winning play of the same name, this film stars Emma Thompson as Vivian Bearing, a woman fighting an advanced case of ovarian cancer.  As a professor of literature, Bearing is used to being in control, but she finds herself a minor player in the world of medicine and science. The character isn't working through a dynamic with any loved ones, but that is part of the film's point. In any case, the film might serve family members seeking to understand the experience of going through chemotherapy and radiation. 

28. Tuesdays with Morrie (1999) Tuesdays with Morrie (1999). Jack Lemmon stars as sociology professor Morrie Schwarts, whose health is failing because of the degenerative disease ALS. But Morrie still has purpose as a teacher to Mitch Albom (played by Hank Azaria). Every Tuesday Morrie shares his wisdom and joie de vivre with Mitch--and with the viewers.  Based on a non-fiction book

29. Marvin's Room (1996) Diane Keaton and Meryl Streep star as estranged sisters reunited over catastrophic health problems.  Streep's character brings two sons with her, the older played by Leonardo DiCaprio.  Yes, their father has cognition and mobility problems due to a series of strokes, but new conflicts arise when other family members need help, too. 

30. The Ballad of Narayama (1984) won the Palme D'Or at Cannes for its depiction of brutal rural life in Japan during the 19th century. While not well documented, Japan has a persistent legend (ubasute) depicted in this film: adult sons carry their aging parents onto a mountain top in order to die.   Because the grandmother knows she will be carried to the local mountain to die, she spends the year prior trying to resolve some issues plaguing her sons and grandsons.

31. Ikiru (1952), a Japanese film, directed by the internationally acclaimed Kurosawa, available with subtitles. The film is about a government employee who must re-evaluate the meaning of his life when he learns that he has stomach cancer. His son and daughter-in-law stay aloof, so the film mainly describes the older man's own reactions to his declining health. He has several strong reactions to the news, ranging from shock to self-indulgence until he settles on using his hard-won wisdom as a bureaucrat to leave a legacy to his community.

Other films with this theme where the dying person may or may not be an older adult:
  • Evelyn (2018) 
  • Blissful at Zero (2018) A documentary of a 33 year old woman with cancer
  • Irreplaceable You (2018) An engaged young woman has cancer
  • Firefly (2017) in Spanish An engaged young woman loses her fiance
  • Collateral Beauty (2016) 
  • The Babadook (2014) Horror film about confronting the grief monster
  • Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015) Teens befriend a girl with cancer
  • The Descendants (2011) Man learns of his coma-stricken wife's infidelities
  • Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2011) A tween loses dad to 911
  • Monsieur Lazhar (2011) in French A teacher dies by suicide
  • Stopped on Track (2011) in German
  • Biutiful (2010) in Spanish A poor father is terminally ill
  • The Way (2010) A bereft father walks El Camino in Spain
  • Rabbit Hole (2010) Parents grieve their young son
  • The Last Station (2009) Tolstoy's last days
  • Taking Chance (2009) Depiction of military transport
  • The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2006) in Romanian
  • The Fountain (2006) Grieving husband time travels
  • Grace Is Gone (2005)
  • Million Dollar Baby (2004) A female boxer suffers injury
  • The Sea Inside (2004) A man in Spain seeks physician's assisted suicide
  • The Hours (2002) Stories of death by suicide
  • You Don't Know Jack (2002) Biopic about Kavorkian
  • Life as a House (2001) Terminally ill dad seeks out teen son
  • No Higher Love (1999)
  • Stepmom (1998) Terminally ill mom sets her life in order
  • One True Thing (1998)
  • What Dreams May Come (1998) Grieving man visits the underworld
  • Ponette (1998) in French
  • My Life (1993)
  • Shadowlands (1993) Biopic of C. S. Lewis and his terminally ill wife
  • The Doctor (1991)
  • Ordinary People (1980) Family fractured by one son's death
  • The Eleanor and Lou Gehrig Story (1978)
  • The Gathering (1977)
Here is a list of titles about death, many of which are about euthanasia aka the right to die, including physician assisted suicide.  

Edited to add another list of titles with previews about death and dying

If you have a recommendation, please leave a comment.



  1. "Dying Wish", a moving documentary about the peaceful dying process of an older man dying from cancer who, with the support of his family, decides to stop eating and drinking.