SENIOR POWER Four years after Dr. Kevorkian’s death, a California end of life option

Helen Rippier Wheeler,
Friday September 18, 2015 - 03:07:00 PM

On Friday, September 11, 2015, California lawmakers passed legislation that would allow the state to grant terminally ill patients the right to end their own lives legally with prescribed medication. Under the End of Life Option Act, patients with six months or less to live would have the option of authorizing a doctor to administer fatal doses of medicine. The bill then went to Gov. Jerry Brown to sign or veto before it automatically goes into effect in January 2016.  

“This bill is for Californians who have been waiting for a compassionate choice [and those] who are suffering from terminal illnesses and would like another choice beside what is currently available to them,” state Assemblywoman Susan Eggman, the primary sponsor of the bill in the Assembly, said at a press conference after the passage. “That is justice, kindness and compassion.” 

The controversial measure was met with opposition from religious groups, hesitant Democrats and advocates for people with disabilities, who argued that it puts terminally ill patients at greater risk of coerced death. The measure passed the California state Assembly with 42-33 votes, and 23014 in the Senate. California would join Montana, New Mexico, Oregon, Vermont and Washington state, which have similar laws. 

Still no laughs in euthanasia  

You may have heard about The Farewell Party via the Jewish Film Festival. The original Hebrew title was Mita Tova. It won the Israeli Oscar for best motion picture direction. 

The New York Times described “laughs in euthanasia, steering a careful course between humor and pathos while playing down overtly political and religious arguments for and against assisted suicide.” How can there possibly be laughs in euthanasia, in ending the life of a person or animal having a terminal illness or medical condition causing suffering seen as incompatible with an acceptable quality of life…? If not actual laughs, what then? Joy! 

The Farewell Party is a French dialog with English subtitles, comedy-drama about the end of life. The Motion Picture Association of America’s film rating system evaluated cautiously, citing elderly, nudity, and frank confrontations with taboo topics, but not citing terminal illness, dementia, and assisted suicide.  

Max is a friend of Yehezkel and Levana, a couple in their 70s. He is dying of cancer. Despite great suffering, he is kept alive against his will by doctors.  

Yehezkel is a Jerusalem retirement home (nursing home, rest home, whatever) resident and an amateur inventor. Yana, Max’s wife, entreats Yehezkel to help Max. Yehezkel devises a mercy-killing machine, a knockoff of Dr. Jack Dying is not a crime Kevorkian’s assisted suicide machine. (The Senior Power column published in the November 24, 2010 Planet was about Jack Kevorkian. He died in June 2011.) 

Now stuff begins to happen. News of Yehezkel‘s device leaks to other residents, and he is overwhelmed by suicide help! requests from senior citizens. It is difficult to turn down those who beg and sometimes extort him. Until, Levana’s secret, early-stage Alzheimer’s worsens, and she wants to avoid the disease’s inexorable deterioration. Then Yehezkel wishes he had never dabbled in life and death matters. Levana had been the only member of the group who was morally opposed to euthanasia, but her attitude softened when she realized to her horror that she was “disappearing.”  

Dr. Daniel, a retired veterinarian, also a resident of the retirement home, has put down many animals. He agrees to help Yehezkel perfect the design of a machine that will allow Max to end his own life by pushing a button. A retired police officer commends a pre-taped video from Max stating that he is responsible for his suicide.  

Yehezkel does indeed take his assisted suicide machine and covertly helps Max achieve a dignified end to his agony. 

Globe correspondent Peter Keough commends The Farewell Party to viewers who found the depiction of old age in Michael Haneke's Amour film (2012) “too bleak.” Amour is a touching tale of a loving couple whose unbreakable bonds of marriage are tested by life’s greatest challenge. You could learn a lot from it. Consider these two films together. Both DVDs have English subtitles and are in public libraries’ collections.  

Some [re-]viewers wonder why Amour, with its dying, aging, happily married, demented elderly characters, won the Palme d'Or. Perhaps they are uncomfortable with its end-of-life subject-- “a grim anatomy of elderly debility and dementia, complete with incontinence, forced feeding and the eventual stench of putrefaction,” as one reviewer put it while lauding “Haneke's unsparing quest for the truth about the way we live and die.” 

Recommended September reading 

While you’re at the library, borrow the You’ve Been Trumped video (lacks subtitles,) originally released as a 2012 motion picture about The Donald. Then restore your morale with Mr. Turner, a brilliant docpic about the final twenty-five years of artist Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851,) and a visit to the DeYoung Museum’s current special Turner exhibition. 


Fear of Dying is Erica Jong’s latest novel-- a psychological and erotic love story. Sandra Sing Loh’s review is "The Fearless Erica Jong: In her 70s, she’s as eager as ever for sex and adventure." (The Atlantic [Washington, DC], Sept. 2015).  


"UCLA (University of California at Los Angeles) study finds million-plus elderly Californians in poverty," by Dan Walters (Sacramento Bee, Sept. 1, 2015).