Merilyn Saunders loved sport, music, dressing up and, most of all, her family.
The Melbourne grandmother died alone after contracting Covid in her aged care facility in January.
Her family believe she was more vulnerable to the disease because she was nursing a broken heart after the death of her daughter.
A mother to three children and grandmother to six, it’s unlikely Merilyn, 79, would have been in aged care if it weren’t for the shock death of her daughter, says her brother, Colin Hughes.
He says the grief of losing a child made the last few years of Merilyn’s life “very, very hard”.
“Merilyn went downhill,” he says.
“She got very, very depressed to the point she could no longer look after herself at home, and that’s how she ended up in aged care.
“She wasn’t physically ill, she was extremely fit, always strong, but she had severe mental health problems. The last two years were absolutely tragic.”
Before her daughter’s death and the pandemic, though, her life was a full one.
Merilyn “Mem” Saunders was born on 22 November 1943. Dux of her high school and an extremely active student, she would go on to study teaching, specialising in PE.
Her first job was at Coburg High school in Melbourne’s north, where she taught physical education to the future Olympic athlete Raelene Boyle and Australian rules footballer Robert Walls.
“She was really good at sport – always won the races at school and swimming, played tennis and netball,” Colin said. “So she had a terrific time.”
After she married her husband, Ivan, Merilyn relocated to England and then Canada where she worked as an exchange teacher before starting a family in Melbourne.
The couple set up a business, while Ivan represented the council on Melbourne’s Bayside.
“She enjoyed social life, being a councillor’s wife,” Colin says.
In her later life, Merilyn joined the Ashton-Smith Singers of Australia, an amateur choral ensemble founded in the 1980s by David Ashton-Smith.
Performing in the group saw her rub shoulders with the late actor Rob Guest and soprano Marina Prior, who Merilyn eventually befriended.
“It was a really lovely thing for Mem; she adored singing and music – was a talented pianist and singer,” Colin says. “She’d always make sure she got herself a photo with Marina and Rob.”
Then, four years ago, Merilyn’s daughter Gabrielle passed away in WA, aged just 40.
Merilyn travelled there the Christmas after, and took Gabrielle’s daughter Evangeline on a cruise from Darwin to Perth.
It was a deeply traumatic time for Merilyn who, on her return to Melbourne, had a mental breakdown, and was admitted to an aged care facility soon after in 2019.
Colin says because of the pandemic and extended lockdowns in Victoria, which prevented her from having visitors, Merilyn psychologically “shut down”.
“[Her] lifelong friends, her boys … we weren’t allowed to visit from WA and our brother was going through his own health problems, my brother wasn’t allowed to visit,” he says.
“Her last two years were spent almost entirely in isolation.”
Then, in January of 2022, she caught Covid.
After she tested positive to the virus, Merilyn had given an end of life directive and decided against active treatment.
“She was a bright girl, she knew what the consequences of that action were likely to be fatal,” Colin says.
“Covid is many different illnesses … it can affect you from the respiratory point of view and cause severe anxiety and distress. She didn’t have oxygen problems – maybe because of her strong lungs – but she had gastrointestinal problems … severe nausea, vomiting, inability to hold down food … that was the cause of her death.”
Colin is at pains to point out that the staff at Merilyn’s aged care facility took great care of his sister – as well as they could under extremely testing circumstances.
“They were wonderful,” he says. “Despite huge problems they followed directives to the letter, and because I’m a doctor they were giving me daily reports on her oxygen.
“We don’t hear from politicians what a good job the aged care staff are doing despite the huge challenges. The nursing aides looked after her in the last couple of years really well – and through lockdown, [residents] didn’t get Covid.”
At this point in time, only one person has died at Mercy Place Corben – Merilyn.
“They were exactly who they said they were, kind, considerate, compassionate,” Colin says. “They arranged Zoom calls when she was still able to receive them, they put in place mental health care plans, they did everything they could.”
But as a former GP, Colin is convinced that if the government had intervened and provided free rapid antigen tests to aged care facilities when Omicron started to spread, Merilyn may not have acquired the virus.
“Instead of a policy that said everyone who comes to a nursing home has to have a RAT before entry, there was no proper infectious control,” he says.
“I’m not blaming the nursing home for that, I just watched this government completely ignore the public health issues and try to pretend vaccination alone was the way out.
“Public health measures are still so important – N95 masks, proper PPE which they were struggling to get a hold of in nursing homes, free rapid tests … so many people are suffering [but] politicians are not listening.
“The government could buy for a couple of dollars a rapid antigen test and an N95 mask. We’re letting these people die; it’s so ludicrous.”
When Merilyn passed away, she became another Covid statistic: a 79-year-old woman who died in aged care, pre-existing conditions.
As of 4 February, 9,718 aged care residents across almost 2,000 facilities in Australia had acquired the virus. Since July last year, 801 people in aged care had passed away.
When Colin remembers his sister, he remembers a woman who loved to have fun, to dress up, to live her life to the fullest; a woman who got a kick out of sailing a boat in a strong wind.
At the celebration of her life, the family played Time to Say Goodbye (Con te partirò), a soaring orchestral ballad first performed by Andrea Bocelli in 1995:
Time to say goodbye,
To countries I never saw and shared with you
Now, yes, I shall see them, I’ll go with you
Go on ships across seas,
Which, I know, no, no, don’t exist any more
It’s time to say goodbye …
“That was Merilyn,” Colin says. “In the photos of her at the funeral … she was a Carnaby Street girl – she had the miniskirts, the big bouffant hair, always dressed to perfection. She loved having a good time.
“She loved life, she loved her music, she loved sport, and she loved me …
“She loved me, and I loved her. That’s all I have to say.”