THE ISSUE: Baby Boomers are now Citrus County’s largest population group.

OUR OPINION: This demographic shift presents an opportunity to strengthen community.

More than 35% of Citrus County residents are in the age group known as Baby Boomers. The Boomers altered life in the United States beginning in the 1960s and 1970s, and pretty much ran things for decades. To some degree they still do. That’s changing, though, and repercussions will be felt in all parts of society.

Boomers were born between 1946 and 1964 — which means the youngest of them is 56 this year, and the oldest is 74. Many peace-and-love flower children and hard-charging, work-focused professionals of yesterday are stunned to find themselves in their 60s and mid-70s today. Some are still in career mode, some have become active early retirees, and some are coping with the inevitable issues of advancing age and of life lived at full throttle.

It’s happening everywhere, but Citrus County is at the leading edge of the changes. Our county has the opportunity starting right now to create a stronger community for accommodating this significant demographic shift. Understand, though, that planning for an aging society isn’t just about “old people”; it’s about livability for all ages and all people.

Last year in April, Gov. Ron DeSantis got Florida certified as an Age-Friendly state in AARP’s Livable Communities program, one of only six states in the nation. In November, Citrus County gained its certification to join eight other Florida counties, including neighboring Marion County. In addition, 26 Florida towns and cities applied and were granted certification.

What does this mean? Membership in the Age-Friendly network encourages local leaders to implement the types of changes that make communities more livable for people of all ages, especially older adults. The process includes communitywide surveys and action plans, and lots of discussion about ways for both private and public sectors to incorporate age-friendly considerations in their decision-making.

The Age-Friendly program goes hand-in-hand with a parallel movement to encourage a Health in All Policies (HiAP) approach countywide, but particularly among elected policymakers and partner organizations. Citrus County has a lot of catching up to do, as a number of other counties and localities have already implemented their HiAP approaches.

Both programs prompt the question: What does an age-friendly, healthy community look like — and how can we achieve that vision?

The importance of social determinants of health is well documented. The choices people make are shaped by the choices people have among those determinants.

For example, there’s the physical environment: everything from clean air and water to affordable housing, safe and accessible recreation spaces, reasonably convenient access to such basic services as food stores, health facilities, schools and jobs. It also includes home modifications to promote safe, comfortable aging in place.

Social and economic factors are important, as well. Physical and social well-being are tightly bound. We’ve all heard about folks who essentially withdraw from the world because they have physical disabilities, economic challenges, lack of transportation and/or no social safety net. Social isolation speeds health deterioration.

On an individual level, certain behaviors contribute mightily to negative health outcomes — smoking, excessive drinking, not exercising — but people could choose differently with education, support and community opportunities. Quality of life matters, and it’s never too late to make a course correction.

How should we plan for Citrus County’s healthy, age-friendly future? Pay attention to the healthcare industry. We still do not have sufficient numbers of practitioners across the range of services and facilities.

Access to healthcare is a continuing problem, from primary care to dental care to mental health care, to residential and longer-term care.

Also, acknowledge that growth is coming. Plan the future physical environment to promote greater community connections and access to needed services. For existing facilities, audit accessibility and usability for citizens of all ages and abilities. Lakeland’s recent audit of city-owned buildings, parks and programs found so many failures to meet Americans with Disabilities Act regulations that it will cost about $45.5 million over the next 25 to 30 years to bring everything into compliance.

Health — physical, mental and social well-being — begins with where we live, learn, work and play. Everyone has a role to play in improving the health of our community, especially when we’re expecting and experiencing such a major demographic shift in our community’s next chapter.

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