Making It Count with The Passions Project
This article originally ran in the May / June 2015 edition of PS Magazine:The Bonus Years on p.16.
My neighbor Sara once told me, “If there’s anything you feel passionately about doing, do it now.” Her words gave me pause. Was I living my passion, I wondered? Was I being true to myself? In her 70’s, Sara had a love for travel and would journey each winter to someplace new… the more remote and challenging the destination, the better. For me, the significance of Sara’s story was less about her advancing years and how exotic her adventures were and more about her bold commitment to herself. Her choices continue to remind me that, no matter what our age is, the current moment is what counts.
Last October, Sara’s story and others inspired a presentation I was doing about living with passion and purpose at any age. As I left the stage, questioning whether what I shared had really touched anyone, 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. Not entirely clear where this calling would lead her, 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 ‘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 words affirm 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. This sense of identity is also richly entwined with those things we hold dear, that enliven us and enrich our relationships. “Meaningless activity corrodes the human spirit,” states Principle Six of the Eden Alternative philosophy, “the opportunity to do things that we find meaningful is essential to human health.” Through meaningful engagement, too, we continue to grow and deepen our capacity for joy, both of which are key to our overall well-being.
“These portraits reflect the spirit of a community,” Heidi shares, “they say ‘this is who we are, these are the things we love.’ Living with passion and purpose is about being alive. 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 nationwide. Since then, Heidi has completed other Passions Projects in Northern Colorado and Iowa, and interest is brewing in other states.
Once during a recent visit back to Frasier Meadows, a group of residents asked Heidi if she would ever return to work there. “I told them that doing so would mean I wasn’t living my passion as a photographer,” says Heidi. Having been touched, themselves, by the Passions Project, they unanimously agreed that she shouldn’t return.
“Looking back, this all began with me searching for my own voice,” says Heidi, “And in turn, 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.”