As we strive towards our vision of creating communities where aging is honored and celebrated, we also lift up others working towards the same goal.

Heidi Wagner is one of our fellow crusaders for changing the conversation around aging. She is a talented photographer who created the Passions Project which she shares with us in this guest article.

The Passions Project is a portrait series of older adults engaged in their passions as a way of redefining aging and eradicating ageism. The ultimate goal is to change the paradigm of aging in our country. When you see people engaged in their passions, you see their passion and a way to connect with them. We can all identify with people through individual passions. The Passions Project connects the viewer with the humanity of the subject and moves us past the pre-conceived notions and stereotypes of what it means to be an older adult.

The Persistence of Ageism

The issue of ageism is persistent and real. The World Health Organization states older people who hold negative views about their own aging do not recover as well from disability and live on average 7.5 years less than people with positive attitudes about aging. According to the Journal of Geriatric Education:

The power and prevalence of cultural stereotypes of aging essentially results in a ‘double-whammy’ to seniors. First, they influence the way that seniors are treated by society. Second, cultural stereotypes affect how seniors see themselves…Considering the demographic trends in North America, finding ways to effectively minimize and counteract the most negative stereotypes remains a pressing social concern.

This research highlights the importance of The Passions Project as a vehicle to give voice to older adults to not only highlight their individual contributions to society but also to recognize their own self-worth.

The Importance of Meaningful Conversations

The most engaging aspect of this multi-dimensional project is the people. As the photographer and creator of The Passions Project, I’ve had the privilege of sharing the stories of hundreds of incredible humans over the past decade. Engaging photos and the personal stories of these individuals have created so many meaningful collective conversations about the importance of having a passion. Among them are Sonny, Alice, and Maggie.


Subject: Sonny; Photographer: Heidi WagnerSonny was part of the doo-wop group The Rivingtons, famous for the song “The Bird’s the Word”. He chose to wear the red tuxedo he donned in his performing days, and it still fit like a glove! Sonny’s comfort and love for being on stage is evident in his photos. When people saw his picture and learned of his past, they enthusiastically asked him about his musical passion. The day Sonny thanked me for making him famous again really underscores the purpose of The Passions Project. Sonny felt seen and heard in a way that he had not in a long time.


Subject: Alice; Photographer: Heidi WagnerThe rich smell of food cooking guided me right to Alice’s home. Upon entering, the first thing I saw were the silver dishes filled with beautifully cooked spinach, mushroom sauce, and a whole garden variety of steamed vegetables. Alice’s kitchen wasn’t large, but every surface was covered with mouth watering foods that were a feast for the senses. Like all those highlighted in The Passions Project, Alice’s cooking is a passion that brings people together in a way that transcends aging.


Subject: Maggie; Photographer: Heidi WagnerAs someone who grew up at a time when there were no organized sports for women, Maggie always found a way to play and be active. Presently, she’s a long-time member of the Colorado Peaches Women’s Softball Club, founded in 1991. “The best part of playing for the Peaches is seeing that athlete inside of people come alive…Our measure of success is how happy we are…I love saying to myself every day, ‘Let’s see what this body can do today.’” Beyond the challenges and personal growth team sports provide, Maggie appreciates the supportive community and space they provide for people to come together. Her passion for the game often inspires other women to join the team.

A Strong Self Worth And Sense of Community

The stories of these and so many extraordinary individuals have, over time, not only proven to transform the self-worth of the participants but also the collective sense of respective communities. The Passions Project was inspired by my work in the wellness center of a retirement community. Having been engaged with older adults daily, I knew I wanted to tell the story of aging and address the misconceptions people have about it. Since then, the project has grown in focus and purpose beyond the initial story I wanted to tell or what I could even imagine at the time.

Although the project was initially centered on ageism and this important work continues to grow and expand, I have since learned the potential this work has to dismantle other -isms that plague our society. Most recently, The Passions Project has been awarded grant money to expand its focus on equity and inclusion beyond ageism. The Passions Project|LGBTQ+ RACINE will utilize the same concept to highlight and humanize members of the LGBTQ+ community in my hometown of Racine, Wisconsin. Another opportunity that has surfaced for The Passions Project is to work in collaboration with the local educators’ union to focus on students and educators of at-risk, marginalized communities in the local public school system.

Education Through Connectivity

Ageism still remains one of the most socially acceptable -isms in our culture. Utilizing storytelling through photography, The Passions Project moves past this discrimination to create opportunity for connectivity through conversation inspired by the subjects of the project. It is our collective responsibility to move beyond societal roadblocks to recognizing the importance and humanity of older adults. What better way than through celebrating our passions?


About the Author

Heidi WagnerFor 15 years, nationally recognized photographer Heidi Wagner has used her camera to look closely at extraordinary people of all ages. Since 2011, Wagner has made The Passions Project the central focus of her creative work.
Through The Passions Project, you get a new view of aging and the importance of living life with passion and purpose.

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