Sep 22, 2021

Vale Merle Mitchell: Aged care campaigner and community activist dies aged 87

Highly respected aged care campaigner and community activist, Merle Mitchell, has died at her Melbourne nursing home, aged 87.

Formerly president of the Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS), Merle became loved and admired for her compassion and tireless work in the community.

In August 2020, Merle painted a devastating picture of life inside a residential aged care home when she presented to the royal commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety.

Merle told the royal commission that when COVID-19 lockdowns hit she was stuck inside her room alone, apart from four physiotherapy sessions a week, with nothing to look at but a brick wall.

She revealed her distress at moving into residential aged care.

Despite the conditions, Merle had the experience and insight to propose improvements for the aged care home, many of which were implemented.


Wisdom and insight right until the end

Originally trained as a kindergarten teacher, Merle worked for a few years in the classroom.

She went on to establish a school and kindergarten in her local suburb of Springvale in Victoria, and founded the Springvale Community Aid and Advice Bureau to support local disadvantaged and diverse communities.

She served as president of ACOSS from 1989 to 1993.

Merle helped to develop state and federal social welfare policies, and remained a social policy advisor, community activist and aged care consumer advocate even while living in residential aged care.

On ABC Radio, Hung Vo, former Deputy President of ACOSS, told host Fran Kelly that although Merle’s comments at the royal commission were devastating, they also gave her hope.

Hung knew Merle and her husband Eric from the time she arrived in Australia as a refugee child in 1978.

When her family arrived in Melbourne in the middle of winter, Eric was principal of the local Springvale school and Merle was president of the Springvale Community Aid and Advice Bureau, which became a second home for many refugees, including those who had come to Australia by boat.

Eric developed innovative ways to engage parents, who often spoke no English and worked seven days a week, in the school community. He introduced international school festivals where families brought in traditional food, and employed bilingual staff to help with communication.

“They had a way of creating a sense you belonged in the community,” Hung recounted.

Merle’s Community Aid and Advice Bureau became known by its street number, ‘Number Five’. 

“Whatever the issue was – you couldn’t send money back to Vietnam, someone was experiencing family violence, a child was in custody – you’ll get help at Number Five,” Hung said.

Her comments at the royal commission were about Merle “speaking up with purpose”. 

“That’s what I’ve learnt from Merle as a mentor. She’s a change agent, she’s an advocate. She’ll speak up.” 

Merle’s vigour, dedication and purpose meant she was effecting change right up until the end of her life.

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  1. I knew Merle when I worked at the Springvale Council ( before it became Greater Dandenong)
    She was the Go To Person for nearly every problem we found difficult. She gave her time without a second thought. She was a local leader and never gave up on any problem that was put before her. Such a peoples’ person with the biggest heart.


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