Judy Joukador is a caretaker of the Purple Road, a 20 metre art textile piece which is an integral part of a social awareness program sponsored and coordinated by the Northern Suburbs Community Legal Centre in Mirrabooka, Western Australia.

As an older person, she felt herself becoming invisible — and she decided, along with a number of energetic and intrepid volunteers, to do something about it.

In today’sworld, as we age, as we go grey, we fade from sight.

People don’t see us anymore, they don’t notice us anymore, they don’t talk to us anymore. People make assumptions about us — that we are frail, weak, and incompetent, that we are a nuisance and an inconvenience.

They assume we are on a limited income, so they don’t attend to us when we go to the shops. They choose to pay attention to someone who looks younger or more prosperous.

Families start to take over and make decisions for older people, rather than consulting with them. “Mum’s on her own now — we’ll pack her up and send her off to a retirement village. She’ll be better off there.” They do so without actually checking to see if that’s what she wants. Ignoring the wishes of an older person and assuming control of their lives is the beginning of what I call the road to elder abuse.

Older people very often experience isolation and loneliness. This can come about through bereavement, illness and alienation, and it can lead to elder abuse, too. It can be a very slippery slope when older people become dependent on others.

It can be a very slippery slope when older people become dependent on others.

People can prey on their frailty and fragility to suit their own ends. It might start innocently enough with someone saying, “I’m taking you shopping and that costs me money for petrol”. The older person is likely to respond with, “Well, here’s $20 for the petrol”. But then it becomes, “Well, I need a few groceries while we’re here, so I’ll put those on your grocery bill, too”.

Before you know it, large sums of money are ‘borrowed’ or ‘loaned’ without interest, and that money is never paid back. When family does this, it’s just assumed to be part of an inheritance that’s been taken before it’s time.

Elder abuse doesn’t have to be physical or financial — it can be emotional abuse. It can be about making older people feel worthless. When people are frustrated with them because they’re a bit slow, they are told they’re useless, that they’re a waste of their family’s time. That is still abuse, because the right of older people to be treated with courtesy and respect is being ignored and their sense of self is being destroyed.

Elder abuse has happened to people who are close to me. I’ve seen it. And as an old Baby Boomer who believes strongly in justice and equality, I felt angry and I felt like I needed to do something about it. As luck would have it, I would meet with a wonderful group of like-minded people.

Northern Suburbs Community Legal Centre (NSCLC) in Mirrabooka, WA, provides legal advice and support to older people who are at risk of, or are experiencing, elder abuse. They have a unit dedicated specifically to protecting the rights of the older person. They also coordinate a register of trained volunteers to make weekly calls to older people who are isolated and might be at risk of elder abuse. They offered training in a peer education program several years ago and I signed up to do the course.

Research shows that older people talking about these issues to their peers, in an informal way, is more effective than someone standing up and lecturing them about the problem.

At the course I met Marissa Martin, communications and volunteer coordinator at NSCLC. I learned about some of the causes of elder abuse, the symptoms of elder abuse and what resources are available to help people who are experiencing elder abuse. After the course, the newly appointed Peer Educators (volunteers) conducted just over 4000 conversations with older people, which began to reveal the shocking extent and types of elder abuse in our community.

After the survey ended, a group of people wanted to continue spreading information about elder abuse, and so the volunteer group was born.

The concept for the Purple Road evolved slowly, with contributions from NSCLC staff and the volunteers. As early as 2015, the staff at NSCLC proposed a concept called ‘The Flower Wall’, which was the precursor to the Purple Road. Staff worked with various agencies, contacted a number of craft groups, and produced designs for purple flowers. I became involved in 2019 and began my efforts. I looked at the roll of calico and the 80 or so flowers pinned to it and began discussions with Marissa and the volunteers as to how this could be used. It took time, patience and many hands to produce the first three-metre prototype. And so the Purple Road began to grow.

It was the responses and feedback from the initial prototype of the Purple Road that really began to shape the discourse behind the project.

The colour purple was chosen because it has long been associated with age and with the Jenny Joseph poem ‘Warning’. We wanted something that would encourage people to stop and ask for information and share their stories and experiences.

The idea of the road came from the understanding that ageing is universal. Everybody has to journey towards old age.

Ageing is universal. Everybody has to journey towards old age.

We wanted to make older people visible again and change perceptions about them. As we travel further along the road, we disappear from society’s view. We started making crochet flowers to decorate the purple textile, with the idea that people could add their own hand-made flowers to the Road.

We began to think that if people stopped to look at the Purple Road, and we got them together in craft groups to crochet flowers together, they might share their stories. In telling those stories, we might start a conversation about ageing and about elder abuse.

We started to display the Purple Road in community centres, and it did exactly what we had hoped it would do.

People stopped and started sharing their stories. Particularly moving was a card left on a display, signed ‘From Georgia’. The card told Georgia’s mother’s story. Her mother had been in respite care and had been badly neglected. She subsequently died of that neglect. I decided to make a triple-layer flower to represent the story of Georgia’s mother, and I tried to contact her to let her know I had read her card. I left a note at the library, but I will never know if she got it. I wanted her to know, “We’re telling your mother’s story for you. We’re raising awareness that she was a person, and she suffered in a way that was unacceptable, and we’re remembering that and we’re trying to do something about that.”

I put a few posts on my Facebook page, and before I could even blink, I started getting hand-made flowers from all over Australia — from South Australia, from Queensland, from Victoria. People were telling us, “This is a great idea, we want people to know that we exist, and just because we’re old doesn’t mean that we have stopped being people”.

Just because we’re old doesn’t mean we have stopped being people.

In a relatively short time frame the Purple Road had grown from 3 metres to over 20 metres. I have probably invested over 700 hours in adding to it and I have had wonderful support from so many people who sew, knit and crochet. Barely a day goes by when I do not receive a donation of flowers.

We’ve taken the Purple Road along the whole northern corridor of Perth. It’s been in many libraries and many community centres. It has been to conferences and conventions. It is very well-travelled.

We have a very staunch group of volunteers like me who go out and do talks if we are asked to do so, and we have little workshops where people can sit and make flowers and talk about the things that are concerning them, but sometimes we just leave the Purple Road quietly with its story on a board. It seems to be able to speak for itself. We just leave the information that refers people back to the NSCLC for help and support, should they need it.

People have come and told us their stories — of good things, of great family relationships, positive stories about ageing. But we also heard a lot of horrible stories about what people were experiencing, in terms of neglect, in terms of ageism, in terms of abuse.

There is a very deep sense of shame that comes with elder abuse, especially when the abusers are often family.

To have to say, ‘My family doesn’t look after me the way your family does’ is a really hard thing for a person to admit, especially when the abuser may also be the care-giver.

Many older people are also of a generation that does not complain. They are very stoic by nature. They don’t ask for painkillers, they don’t ask for help, and this can leave them in a difficult situation — isolated, alone and abused.

I can see now that there are a lot of people out there who feel the same way as I do; that it is an ageist world and older people are often overlooked.

But the truth is that every older person is a unique individual, and we’re actually quite lovely, if you stop and talk to us.

Every older person is a unique individual.

We all have stories to tell — and every flower on the Purple Road represents one of those stories.

For more information about the Purple Road project, contact info@nsclegal.com.au or marrisa.martin@nsclegal.org.au.