Gretchen DeRoche of Seattle started volunteering to help others at the end of their lives nearly 30 years ago. She began as a caregiver in the AIDS community in 1986, receiving the prestigious Jefferson Award in 1992 honoring her community and public service. “I did feel a definite calling to get involved with the AIDS crisis. I had been active in the gay community as a parent, and I knew from my experience that there would be people without family support. So I wanted to provide some kind of ‘surrogate’ family support. I stopped working to volunteer full-time. I had no experience in the medical field until I started taking care of people with AIDS. I learned a lot from that.”
Now the client support volunteer coordinator and a board member for Compassion & Choices of Washington, she still commits herself to making people’s deaths – and through that, their lives – better. “When the new AIDS medications came out and the death rate went down dramatically, I was looking for another volunteer opportunity. It just seemed like a natural segue to go from that into Compassion & Choices. The executive director of the Seattle AIDS Support Group was one of the founding members of Compassion in Dying (now Compassion & Choices) of Washington, so I knew about the organization and what it was doing. I started as a volunteer with clients, and then about five years ago I became the client support coordinator. I do the training and assign cases to prospective volunteers, which is sometimes assigning it to myself; I still work directly with clients.”
In 2008 Washington overwhelmingly passed a death-with-dignity initiative, legalizing aid in dying. But Gretchen warns of a growing barrier to access in the state. “We do have more participating physicians than we did starting out. But a great deal of the healthcare system is being taken over by Catholic organizations … people have fewer choices. I don’t know of any instance where anyone working for a Catholic hospital has been able to participate. There’s not enough public education about what is happening, either that people have a choice or that their choice could be taken away.”
When she’s not helping others understand and exercise their options around dying, Gretchen and her husband value their quiet time, enjoying their children and grandson, who all live in the Northwest. And, their own end-of-life plans have long been in place. “I think it’s very important. We don’t have POLST forms yet, because we’re both very healthy at this point. We do have advance directives and wills, though. I think everybody should. Certainly I talk to all my clients about having their paperwork in order. We did our first wills back in the 1950s as soon as we had a child. We update our wills regularly.