Sometimes amidst the chaos, there are moments of clarity, when we’re reminded why we do the work we do. I had one of those moments last October, during one of those speaking engagements when you’re not sure anyone really cares what you have to say. I was speaking about rethinking aging and the beauty of living with meaning and purpose at any age. People strolled by the exposition hall stage, munching on nachos, catching a word or two of my talk, and occasionally moving on. It was surreal. As I left the stage, a woman approached me with damp eyes and introduced herself. She got it, I thought. What a relief. What I learned though, as our conversation unfolded, was that she didn’t just get what I was talking about, she was living it.
In 2011, Heidi Wagner had an idea. Having worked in long-term care at Frasier Meadows in Boulder, CO since 2002, she began to see glimpses of how to bring her work with Elders together with her renewed passion for photography. She decided she wanted to do a portrait series of Frasier Meadows residents doing what they love.
“I would say to the residents, ‘I want to know what your passions are.’ ‘Passion’ is kind of an intimate word, so it was a little awkward at first. But the more we talked about it, the clearer it became… the name ‘The Passions Project’ was the right title for this work,” says Heidi.
It wasn’t long before a particular hallway at Frasier Meadows was graced with 41 portraits of residents living their passion. A great source of pride for the community, the project was clearly a game-changer. Relationships began to unfold around newfound, mutual interests, and the conversation about aging took on a different shade.
“As I’m connecting with people about their passions, there is something that comes through when people are genuinely interested in showing you who they are,” says Heidi. “I’m not asking them what their age is, because honestly, I don’t care. That’s not what this project is about.”
Heidi’s comments remind me that when we have the opportunity to know someone well, ageism is a moot point. Where individuality is supported and celebrated, stigma and preconceived notions have no place. “These portraits reflect the spirit of a community,” Heidi shares, “they say ‘this is who we are, these are the things we love.’ When we see someone living their passion, we see someone we can be inspired by, someone we might wish to know better.”
By 2012, the exhibit had moved from the walls of Frasier Meadows to the Leading Age National Meeting in Denver. Heidi’s desire to chronicle the passions of others had clearly shed light on her own. Inspired by the subjects of her photos to live life to the fullest, she left Frasier Meadows in 2013 to pursue a full-time career in photography and her commitment to growing the Passions Project. Since then, Heidi has completed other Passions Projects in Northern Colorado and Iowa, and interest is brewing in Texas and California.
“Looking back, this all began with me searching for my own voice,” says Heidi, “And the project ended up giving a voice to a population of people I so deeply appreciate and enjoy. I’m always so energized when I work with someone on their portrait. Living with passion and purpose… it’s really about being alive.”