Aged care campaigner, community activist and former ACOSS president Merle Mitchell has died

© Provided by ABC NEWS Merle Mitchell worked tirelessly to improve the community around her – more recently becoming a voice for aged care residents during the Royal Commission. (Supplied: Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety)

Former Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS) president and advocate for so many, Merle Mitchell AM, has died. 

Merle’s commitment to her community was obvious to anyone lucky enough to cross her path. 

Her approach was a simple, but powerful one — as she told The Council of Ageing in 2018:

“I think I became a community activist because whenever I saw there was something that needed to be done, I thought, we should do something about it.”

In her early career, Merle trained as a kindergarten teacher. 

After a few years in the classroom, she moved into community work: helping to establish Sandown Park Primary School, as well as the planning of kindergartens across the City of Springvale. 

She shared her considerable knowledge and experience to help the development of state and federal social welfare policies.

After many years of advocacy for her community and others she went on to serve as the president of the ACOSS from 1989-1993.

In 1991, she was awarded the Member for the Order of Australia. 

Merle’s considerable CV demonstrates a woman of great compassion and care: work with the Refugee Council, participation with Commonwealth advisory bodies on things like social security and child support, volunteer work as part of the Foodbank Victoria Steering Committee — and much, much more.  

Royal Commission into Aged Care

Ms Mitchell was one of many who shared their story with the aged care royal commission. 

In her lengthy and detailed submission, she spoke of moving into a care home with her late husband Eric in 2016. 

“The sense of loss that comes from moving to aged care is really underestimated,” she told the Commission. 

“I had lost my independence, control over my life and I felt I had lost my connection with my much-loved community.”

Merle revealed the trauma of leaving her independent life behind, the grief at the death of her husband — and the frustration she felt dealing with care institutions. 

“The way the system is currently structured, staff cannot implement compassionate person-centred care.”

In March this year, the final report into the aged care royal commission was released. 

She expressed her concern and shock that commissioners were split over the recommendations. 

“I’m only hoping that there’s enough push from the community to say enough is enough, we’ve got to have the funding, we’ve got to listen to the people who did all the work and implement those recommendations as soon as we possibly can.”

“I just keep thinking, when I was getting people to write their submissions, that this was the one opportunity that we had to make things right again. And if we didn’t, we were failing our generation, and all the generations to come.”

Sharing her experiences of a pandemic in aged care

Ms Mitchell’s piece in The Sydney Morning Herald last August, titled Damn, I am still alive, was a gripping and honest account of the experience of older Australians in COVID lockdown. 

“I know I’m here until I die so every morning when I wake up I think, ‘damn, I’ve woken up’,” she wrote. 

In October 2020, she joined the panel on The Drum. 

“I say, ‘This is a room where I got a bed, where I’m looked after, where I’ve got a chair. This is not my home’.”

At the time of filming, she was in lockdown in Melbourne. That week had been the first time in more than six months Merle had been able to see her family. 

Tributes to Merle, a ‘people’s hero’

Fellow community advocates have been sharing their reflections on Merle’s life and incredible contribution over the years. 

ACOSS CEO Cassandra Goldie described Ms Mitchell as a “sharp, determined, tenacious, compassionate advocate”.

“Merle leaves an extraordinary legacy of lives made better, organisations built and stronger, and policies which have stood the test of time.”

“As importantly, Merle Mitchell leaves a powerful message to us all about what true leadership really takes. Merle spoke not in slogans but with truth, heart and head, and showed us all what true courage takes.”

Ian Yates, Council of the Ageing chief executive described her as a ‘genuine people’s hero’.

“From her days leading VCOSS, to her more recent contributions to the Council on the Ageing, and many other civil society organisations in between, Merle lived and demonstrated compassion and a deep commitment to fight discrimination and disadvantage and to protect people’s rights.”

“And in the last years, from her nursing home, she was a fearsome and articulate advocate for the rights of people in aged care; a powerful, credible, star witness at the aged care royal commission; and a forceful media advocate for aged rights,” added Yates. 

“Vale Merle, with thanks and appreciation from so many. You will be deeply missed.” 

Ian Henschke, chief advocate for National Seniors Australia, said he was “very saddened” to hear of her passing.

“But what a wonderful life she led advocating for others. She gave one of the most powerful testimonies before the Royal Commission into Aged Care when she told of her own personal experience, saying she was living in an institution rather than a home. She said, “there’s just that feeling this isn’t a proper life.

On behalf of National Seniors and the seniors community, I want to thank her for her tireless work. She was able to focus people’s minds on the individual and show aged care policies must change to improve people’s lives.”

Mr Henschke said it was a privilege to appear with her on television, to speak on these issues. 

“Let’s hope her advocacy is not forgotten and whoever wins the next election restores faith in the Aged Care system,” he said.

Merle Mitchell was a valued member of The Drum family. We are grateful for the time she made to appear on the show — and the wisdom, humour and insight she shared. 

She will be deeply missed. 

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