This past week, 4,000 purple lawn flags were placed in front of the Sonoma County administration building.

The following day, the Board of Supervisors proclaimed today World Elder Abuse Awareness Day in Sonoma County to help elevate awareness of the issue of elder abuse.

This is the third year the purple flags are being displayed to dramatize the magnitude of the problem of elder abuse. Each flag represents one report of elder abuse made last year in Sonoma County to Adult Protective Services and Senior Advocacy Services' long-term care ombudsman.

This startling number of seniors facing abusive conditions has been growing. Reports to Adult Protective Services have increase by 110 percent from a decade ago, and it is likely there will be an even more dramatic increase in the next decade as more baby boomers age into this demographic.

The federal Administration on Aging estimates 2.1 million older Americans are victims of elder abuse, neglect and exploitation every year, and research indicates that is just the tip of the iceberg.

Conservative estimates say one in five incidents are reported, and a New York state study last year put the number closer to one in 20.

The cost of elder financial abuse and exploitation in the U.S. alone is an estimated $2.9 billion or more annually — funds that could have been used to pay for basic needs such as housing, food and medical care.

As our older population grows, it becomes increasingly important to address this problem for societal and economic reasons. Seniors are living longer but not necessarily better.

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

One local effort is the Sonoma County Elder Protection Workgroup, a collaborative of local nonprofit and government agencies working together to educate the community on how seniors can stay safe from elder abuse. It was formed last year when two community outreach efforts merged into one. It's an excellent example of how working together benefits everyone, especially the community.

Meetings of the workgroup clearly demonstrate how it truly takes a village to address the problem of elder abuse. Adult Protective Services, Senior Advocacy Services' long-term care ombudsman, local law enforcement, the district attorney, the Family Justice Center, the Area Agency on Aging advisory council, the Council on Aging and many volunteers all share knowledge to better inform and educate the community on how to recognize, report and prevent elder abuse.

At times, it's like watching the ripples of a pebble hitting the water — one small thing can lead to so much more. A recent elder protection workgroup presentation was made at the Rotary Club of Windsor. Now Rotary members who visit seniors with information on the Vial of Life program go armed with information on how to detect signs of elder abuse during their visits.

Every effort — learning about elder abuse, visiting elderly family and friends, taking precautions against becoming a victim — takes us closer to a community where everyone can age with dignity, security and freedom from harm. Please do your part and wear purple today to show you care about elder abuse.

You can make a difference.

<i>Jane Eckels is chairwoman of the Sonoma County Elder Protection Work Group and a member of the Sonoma County Area Agency on Aging advisory council and the Senior Advocacy Service board of directors. She lives in Santa Rosa. To learn more about elder protection workgroup's free presentation, email epwgsonoma@ gmail.com or call 565-8255.</i>