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There is a growing problem in our county and our country, and yet few people are aware of its magnitude. The problem is elder abuse.

To dramatize its scope locally and to support the worldwide effort to increase awareness, nearly 4,000 purple flags and an accompanying banner adorn the northeast corner of Mendocino and Bicentennial avenues in Santa Rosa. Each flag represents one report of elder abuse made to Sonoma County Adult Protective Services and the long-term care ombudsman last year.

They will remain there through today, which is World Elder Abuse Awareness Day and, as proclaimed by the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, Elder Abuse Awareness Day in our county.

In the United States, the federal Administration on Aging estimates 2.1 million older Americans are victims of elder abuse, neglect and exploitation every year. Research suggests these numbers are just the tip of the iceberg. Conservative estimates say only one in five incidents of elder abuse is reported, and a recent New York state study puts the number closer to one in 20.

The numbers are difficult to pinpoint for many reasons. Victims don't report abuse because they are ashamed or embarrassed, or they worry they will be forced to live in a nursing home. Some feel guilty or are afraid that if they report, the abuse will get worse. Other victims are unable to speak out due to dementia or other impairments and may not be believed if they do. One theory suggests that a culture of ageism and a fear of growing old keeps older people marginalized and undervalued in our society, making them invisible and their problems viewed as unimportant.

We, as a community, must make certain this vulnerable segment of our population is protected and valued, and that begins with increased public awareness and grass-roots involvement that can help address and prevent elder abuse.

To achieve that, it is important to understand elder abuse can happen to anyone — a loved one, a friend or neighbor, and, when we are old enough, even us. It affects seniors across all socio-economic groups, cultures and races and can happen anywhere: in your home, assisted-living facilities, nursing homes or hospitals.

Everyone should learn to recognize the signs of elder abuse, know how to report it and know what precautions to take against becoming a victim. This and other important information about preventing elder abuse is available in free information sessions offered by members of the Sonoma County Elder Protection Workgroup to community groups throughout the county.

Workgroup members include representatives from the SCAAA, the Family Justice Center and District Attorney's Office, Adult Protective Services, Senior Advocacy Services, Council on Aging and local law enforcement. For more information or to schedule a presentation, call 565-8255.

As our older population continues to grow, it becomes increasingly important to address the problem of elder abuse for both societal and economic reasons.

Seniors are living longer but not necessarily better. Potential declines in cognitive and physical functions make them more vulnerable to victimization, and those who experience abuse, neglect or self-neglect face a considerably higher risk of premature death. Beyond the physical costs,it is estimated that elders in America lose a minimum of $2.9 billion annually due to elder abuse and exploitation.

<NO1>Many cases of elder abuse go undetected and unreported. We all have the responsibility to recognize and report elder abuse.<NO> Every older person living in Sonoma County deserves to live life with dignity and an expectation of safety. Do your part and wear purple today to show you care about elder abuse.

Jane Eckels is chairwoman of the Sonoma County Elder Protection Workgroup and a member of the Sonoma County Area Agency on Aging advisory council and the Senior Advocacy Services board of directors. She lives in Santa Rosa.