After two decades of providing compassionate end-of-life care for the aging population of Whidbey Island, Enso House is evolving.
Several changes are in store for the tranquil Freeland home that since 2003 has provided a place for over a hundred hospice patients to peacefully pass away.
This weekend marks the 20th anniversary of the acceptance of Enso House’s very first guest. A celebration open to the public is scheduled for 1-4 p.m. this Saturday, Sept. 9. Several speakers deeply rooted in Enso House’s beginnings will discuss its plans for the future.
Longtime Director Ann Cutcher is retiring, and the nonprofit organization is shifting its focus to provide support for caregivers living on the island.
“We will no longer be a residential hospice,” said David Daiku Trowbridge, who is president of Enso House’s board of directors. “That incarnation of Enso House is completed, and now we’re going to have a new direction.”
Trowbridge and his wife, Cynthia, established the nonprofit Tinyblue Foundation, which purchased the 20-acre property and gifted it to Enso House in 2001. David Trowbridge was associated with the nearby Tahoma One Drop Zen Monastery, where he was a student of Zen Master Shodo Harada Roshi, who had a vision of starting a home for the dying to receive care at the end of their lives.
For years Enso House worked in tandem with the monastery, which provided zen students that made up the core caregiving team. Caregivers living in the five-bedroom home received free room and board and a small monthly stipend, as well as training.
“No one had a salary,” Trowbridge said. “Everybody’s doing it out of the goodness of their hearts. That’s how it’s been for the last 20 years.”
Community volunteers have supplemented and supported the core team, but since the COVID-19 pandemic, it has become increasingly difficult to find caregivers.
“I think it’s a global issue, and it’s a very odd and difficult situation to navigate,” said Cutcher, who has served as one of the core caregivers for 20 years.
Cutcher came onboard as the director of Enso House in 2002. Ever since then, she’s lived on the property in a small cottage and has made herself available 24/7 for the guests of Enso House, 90% of whom were Whidbey residents to begin with.
A physician, Cutcher was practicing as an internist in Arizona when an old friend who became an ordained Buddhist nun in Japan called her and explained the concept of Enso House.
“I thought it was crazy, and I really tried to figure out a way to say no to her, and I couldn’t,” Cutcher said.
She took a six-month-long sabbatical to lay the groundwork for the nonprofit organization. Meanwhile, the house sat empty.
The pivotal moment happened when Enso House welcomed its first guest in September 2003. Neighbors and friends of a man in need of care who lived by himself in a shack on a South Whidbey beach approached Enso House about taking him in. After that first experience, Cutcher was hooked. She never thought about leaving the island again.
“It’s really been a great gift in my life, and I think a great gift for everybody who’s been involved,” she said. “And I’m not sure if it would have worked except in a place like Whidbey Island.”
People have tried to replicate Enso House in other areas without success, she said. Often financial barriers are encountered. With no mortgage to pay, Enso House got lucky in that regard.
But with not enough core staff to volunteer their time, Enso House will no longer operate as a hospice. The last guest is preparing to depart soon.
Cutcher explained that Enso House, which will remain a nonprofit organization, will try to figure out how to help the community get what it needs in terms of hospice care through caregivers helping in homes. She is hoping Enso House will provide a place for caregivers working in the community to live.
“It’s not going to be empty,” Trowbridge said of Enso House. “It’s going to be a busy place.”
Trowbridge added that he has heard of some caregivers couchsurfing in order to work on Whidbey Island. In other cases, they live on the mainland and must rely on the ferry to get home at night.
“We know that on Whidbey Island there’s a huge demand for caregivers, but there’s this fundamental problem where caregivers can’t afford to live on Whidbey,” he said.
A total of 106 guests have passed away while staying at Enso House. In most cases, Enso House only accepted one guest at a time. Friends and family members were free to spend as much time there as they pleased.
William Shinsan Griswold’s mother spent time at Enso House in 2020 to recover from a broken hip. In fact, she did so well that she had to leave because she wasn’t dying.
Because it was during the COVID-19 pandemic, Griswold, a Freeland resident, faced additional challenges in visiting his mother. He and his sister took regular COVID-19 tests and were the only two family members allowed inside Enso House.
Other family members climbed up on ladders outside of her window to say hello from a distance.
“It was actually quite comical, and she got a kick out of that,” Griswold said.
Though his mother passed away later that year and not at Enso House, he remains grateful for the experience she had there.
“Enso House and Ann were fantastic about figuring out how to help us care for her,” he said. “She had a lot of needs after recovering from a broken hip, at 89 years old.”
Kurt Hoelting’s father and son both peacefully spent their final days at Enso House, in 2006 and 2017.
“It was an amazing, very unusually intimate place for people to go since it wasn’t really a business,” the Clinton resident said. “It was supported externally, and they never had more than one person there at a time.”
Hoelting, who has long been a part of the Tahoma One Drop Zen Monastery community, recalled that the house, which has an especially calming presence, was used for week-long meditation retreats before becoming a place for hospice patients to stay. Its unique sense of hospitality has remained.
He has heard of the transformation Enso House is about to undergo.
“That sounds like a really promising vision for the place that could serve a lot more people, too,” he said.