Sheryl Sandberg's book Lean In:Women Work, and the Will to Lead ignited a national conversation on empowering women in the workplace.  But for me, it sparked an idea to help seniors living in the retirement community where I worked.

My version: "Lean In to Live Well" groups for residents with chronic diseases.  A couple of energetic nurses took this on and ran with it, inviting a select group to participate (all frequent visitors to the Wellness Office).  The nurses taught them how to better manage their health, and soon the residents started sharing their experiences with each other, creating the peer-to-peer support I expected to happen.

Sue Ronnenkamp
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Sue Ronnenkamp

Together they were empowered to get more involved in managing their health, and expand their ability to handle the ups and downs of their various conditions.  When one resident was having a particularly challenging time, the others jumped in with added encouragement and comfort.  This special "Lean In" group increased quality of life for these residents, while also reducing medical office visits and hospitalizations (saving time, energy, and money).

Ellen Langer's landmark book Counter Clockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility first taught me that with a shift in mindset, we can all better manage our health. For instance, we can recognize that chronic conditions don't feel the same every day. These chronic conditions leverage the times we feel good and make adjustments when we don't.  Paying closer attention to small changes in our bodies, we can take action before larger problems arise.

No medical practitioner can do this for us.  Only we can. This is the power we bring to the health-care table. This is the expertise we gain with age and experience.

Last year, my hip condition gave me the opportunity to feel these lessons.  I knew something was wrong very early on and quickly reached out for medical advice.  After getting the runaround for a year, I took back my power.  I returned to my trusted primary-care practitioner and asked for a second opinion.  The new doctor listened to me and confirmed that I was right.  I really did need a new hip – a step I'd been ready to take for months.  I'd been through my mother's three joint replacements and several for my siblings, and knew my hip wouldn't get better with time. I also knew that living with this treatable condition wasn't acceptable to me, not by a long shot.

Prepping for surgery also prompted memories of past bad experiences with pain medication, and I warned my health team about this issue.  Still, they didn't act until I vomited all over the floor the morning after surgery, another reminder that we, the patients, often know ourselves best.

All of this and more made me value my experience-earned expertise even more.  Now I know to speak up louder the next time anything changes with my body or health.  Yes, I'll always want qualified health professionals on my team, but I'll never let them treat me like a passive participant again.

All of us agers have earned expertise that must be heeded.  But as I've learned, before anyone will pay attention to us, we must learn to lean in and listen to ourselves to truly manage, even master, our health challenges. Doing this, we can live empowered for life.

This is part of a series on "Rethinking Aging" from Sue Ronnenkamp, who writes, teaches, and innovates in order to shift the way we view and respond to aging.  Ronnenkamp, who lives in the Philadelphia area, has a master's degree in health-care administration and has worked in the aging field for more than 20 years.   See more at www.agethrive.org and on Facebook at AgeThrive.