Strangers Become Family at This Multigenerational Housing Project

A unique affordable-housing community supports both foster families and elders who might be looking for a few extra grandchildren.
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Cheryl Crowell and her four boys are known around Bridge Meadows as the "First Family" because they were the first to move in when the community opened in 2011. Left to right: Noah, Cheryl, Joaquin, Tomas, and Eli Crowell. YES! photo by Paul Dunn.

After a long day of preschool, 5-year-old Joaquin Crowell still has energy to burn. He bounds from a TV cartoon to a magnetic fishing game, from blowing up a green balloon to listening to his favorite story, Bedtime for Frances. And 73-year-old Chris Conners is only too happy to oblige. To Joaquin, she is his oma— “grandma” in her native German. And to Conners, “He’s like my grandson. I fell in love with him the first time I saw him.”

Joaquin isn’t the only child Conners watches regularly in the comfort of her apartment. She is one of 29 senior citizens who live at Bridge Meadows in Portland, Oregon, where elders help neighbors in myriad ways, gaining what amounts to an extended family in return.

That’s the mission of this privately funded nonprofit organization that established a multigenerational community on a former elementary school site in North Portland. The cluster of townhomes and apartments brings together low-income elders and nine adults who have adopted or are in the process of adopting children out of foster care through an organization that provides on-site services and creates a support network for all. Inspired by Hope Meadows, a similar development in Illinois, Bridge Meadows is building an additional site in the Portland suburb of Beaverton and has become a model for others, from a home for pregnant teens aging out of foster care in Washington, D.C., to a community for Native American foster families and elders across town in Portland.

Multigenerational housing is not a new concept. But the nation’s aging population—with the number of people age 65 and older expected to nearly double by 2050—is changing the way people live. As baby boomers age, their numbers will necessitate new options for retirement living and long-term care. Bridge Meadows addresses that need and more, by supporting foster children, who tend to face learning and behavioral challenges, while giving often-single elders some connection to others. Here, the proverbial village cares for everyone.

“Living at Bridge Meadows requires a willingness to be connected and part of a community,” says Executive Director Derenda Schubert. “When you want that, then you will have an abundant life inside such a community.”

“Elder” at Bridge Meadows means anyone older than 55. (The oldest resident is 92.) The elders have a range of health-care needs. Some have jobs, although most are retired. Many talk of children and grandchildren, near and far. They chose Bridge Meadows for similar reasons: affordable rent, a chance to live in a community, an interest in being around young and active families. To live here, they had to complete a 22-page application and pass a series of background checks. But those prerequisites aren’t daunting: There’s a waiting list.

A few elders were drawn to the volunteerism that is required: 100 hours per quarter, in any form that benefits the Bridge Meadows community. Some elders feel more comfortable with their peers, so they drive others to doctor appointments, teach an activity class, or stock the building’s library. But most are involved directly with the 29 children—tutoring after school, offering art lessons, or caring for the little ones while parents work, run errands, or simply need a break.

That involvement prevents isolation, Schubert explains.

“Elders talk about coming to Bridge Meadows because they feel like, in the greater society, they’re invisible,” she says. Experts say a sense of purpose is critical for senior citizens. Connections with others can prevent elder abuse, keep seniors active and productive longer, and improve their lives as well as the lives of those around them.

More seniors are living with their grown children.

Pairing older adults with children and teens benefits both generations, says Amy Yotopoulos, director of the Mind Division at the Stanford Center on Longevity. Vulnerable youth, such as those placed in foster care, often lack trusted, supportive adults in their lives. Senior citizens, meanwhile, can bring life experience and emotional intelligence to their friendships.

“Being able to give back serves an important role in providing meaning and purpose in the lives of seniors,” Yotopoulos says.

Multigenerational housing is on the rise. More seniors are living with their grown children, lowering costs while establishing stronger family bonds. Still other communities are being developed that cater to a range of ages and family styles.

Multigenerational housing is on the rise. Communities like Portland's Bridge Meadows are being developed to cater to a range of ages and family styles. YES! Photo by Paul Dunn.

 

Reba Chainey, right, prepares dinner for roughly 50 people every Wednesday for “Happiness Hour,” when families and elders convene for a meal, conversation, and, later, playtime. YES! Photo by Paul Dunn.

“Housing models are changing. Older adults aren’t interested in being put out to pasture, and a lot of them aren’t interested in being in a senior-only community,” says Donna Butts, executive director of Generations United, a Washington, D.C., advocacy and research organization. “When you have young people and older people, you have better opportunities for informal interaction, keeping people engaged in thinking about their history and roots, but also hope and the future.”

And without children, there would be no Bridge Meadows.

It’s just before 4:30 p.m. on a Wednesday, and 10-year-old Reba Chainey and her 9-year-old sister Lydia are impatient for people to arrive in the Bridge Meadows community room. They can see their grandmother, also named Reba, in the pass-through window to the kitchen, busily dishing up ham and peach quiche with salad. The elder Reba prepares dinner for roughly 50 people every Wednesday for “Happiness Hour,” when families and elders convene for a meal, conversation, and, later, playtime. The atmosphere is casual, familial. People drift in and out. Children snuggle up to elders, and friends catch up on each others’ days.

Little Reba, as she’s known, shows a visitor her small digital camera—a gift from her elder buddy Eileen, a photographer herself. Little Reba clicks through images of flowers and insects (“all from outside here,” she explains, pointing to the back patio), along with one of her at the Portland Art Museum. Just a few weeks prior, Little Reba’s painting was chosen as part of an exhibit of student work from around the city—a proud accomplishment for any young artist, but perhaps especially so for Little Reba.

Until she and her sister were placed in foster care three years ago, Little Reba had never been to school, never learned to read, and never knew a home with consistent rules or routines. When the older Reba Chainey learned the state of Oregon had removed the girls from her son’s home, she flew up from California to move her granddaughters out of foster care and to begin the process of adoption. Now in her tidy townhouse, adorned with framed photos and inspirational sayings, Chainey insists on instilling her values and giving the girls the experiences they never had before, from church services to summer camp.

In 2013, the year Chainey moved from California, Little Reba and Lydia were among approximately 8,500 children in Oregon’s foster care system. The goal of the state’s Department of Human Services, to keep children with their biological families whenever possible, plays out at Bridge Meadows. The 24 former foster children have either been adopted or are in the process of being adopted by a relative. (The other five at Bridge Meadows are biological children.) Some of the children were in foster care only briefly, others longer, but they are still overcoming their pasts and dealing with problems that manifest today.

Parents have learned how to accept help, to lose the fear of being judged.

Here, there is a counselor for families once a week, along with regular support groups—Wisdom Circle for elders only, Community Circle for parents and elders. There, adults can share what they’re experiencing with children or neighbors and seek feedback or advice. The revelations have led to workshops on understanding and appreciating diversity and on child development and trauma. Some elders have confronted their own biases or adjusted to new parenting styles; parents have learned how to accept help, to lose the fear of being judged.

“People are challenged here,” says Associate Director Renee Moseley. “But over time, a level of compassion grows.”

Initially, the staff organized families and elders into “teams,” hoping to facilitate new bonds. But the structure felt artificial. Eventually, residents gravitated toward each other naturally, as friends do.

Cheryl Crowell and her four boys are known around Bridge Meadows as the “First Family” because they were the first to move in when the community opened in 2011. For Joaquin, the youngest of the boys, it’s the only home he’s known. For Crowell, 57, it’s the strongest family she’s had.

Crowell spent years in foster care herself. Eventually, she had two children of her own, raised them as a single parent, and became a dental technician. Then, nearly a decade ago, she was living in a two-bedroom house in Portland and adopted her adult daughter’s first two sons, Eli and Noah, then 4 and 2, respectively. “She’s struggled all her life,” Crowell says of her daughter.

When a third boy, Tomas, was just a few months old and in Crowell’s care, she learned her daughter was pregnant with Joaquin. It was a tipping point. Crowell felt overwhelmed by the boys’ needs and her own inability to cope. She told her state caseworker, who recommended Bridge Meadows.

“It was very important to me to keep the boys together and that I wanted something bigger and better for them,” Crowell says. “But I knew that I couldn’t do it by myself at my age. I was determined to do whatever I had to do.”

It turned out to be a godsend. Crowell didn’t feel so alone. The boys found stability, the company of other children, and some ready-made grandparents.

“The elders have our children, and our children have them. The relationships they build may carry with them the rest of their lives,” she says. “I just wanted what was healthiest for them. Then I found out that it was the best thing for me, for all of us.”

The oldest, 13-year-old Eli, puts it this way: “There’s just so many people you can become family with.”

“There’s just so many people you can become family with.”

It’s not a perfect match for everyone. Over the years, three families have left because they were no longer participating in the foster care program. Two other families found homes of their own. Another eight elders decided to live elsewhere.

The commitment is significant, many elders admit. You have to want to be here, to live in this tight-knit environment, where it can be tough to set personal boundaries and where, like in any extended family, people don’t always get along.

Nor has it been a completely smooth ride for the Bridge Meadows organization. Neighbors in North Portland and near the first proposed Beaverton site feared a “housing project” and all that might entail.

Since then, Bridge Meadows has chosen a different Beaverton location, and the neighborhood surrounding the North Portland community has warmed. Nearby residents often drop by for Happiness Hour as the next venture for the Bridge Meadows organization proceeds without incident two blocks away: New Meadows, a home for young adults transitioning out of foster care.

Meanwhile, other advocates and agencies are looking to Bridge Meadows as they embark on their own similar projects.

In February 2016, the Native American Youth and Family Center (NAYA) broke ground in Southeast Portland on Generations, a housing community for Native American elders and Native youth in foster care. Generations, like Bridge Meadows, aims to house those who are in the process of being placed permanently with a family.

Joy Corcoran gets a hug from one of the resident children. There are 29 kids and 29 senior citizens living at Bridge Meadows. YES! Photo by Paul Dunn.

NAYA Deputy Director Rey Espana says he was sold on the Bridge Meadows model from his first visit. The multigenerational approach, he says, resonates with the Native community.

“Intergenerational housing is a philosophy that’s very much in keeping with indigenous tribal and cultural beliefs. Having elders and extended family around is a very familiar housing arrangement,” he says.

Generations and Bridge Meadows alone won’t solve the problem, given the thousands in foster care, says Reginald Richardson, deputy director of the state’s Department of Human Services. But the communities’ structure and mission represent a form of home and permanency that’s as close to a stable, multigenerational family as many foster children can hope for.

“Places like Bridge Meadows can become a successful model for other folks who might want to replicate it,” Richardson says. “Research clearly shows that kids do better when they know they have a forever family, when they have adults who care for them. At Bridge Meadows, there is unwavering support for the child and for the family who’s parenting that child.

“It isn’t the government imposing a solution on folks,” he adds. “It’s the community imposing solutions on themselves.”

Back at Happiness Hour, Noah Crowell and his elder buddy, Winona Phillips, are about to take the microphone.

They’re ready to announce 11-year-old Noah’s most complicated dish yet—ratatouille—and that he wants to share it with his neighbors.

Noah has donned a chef’s toque—a gift from Phillips—and clutches a stuffed rat from the Pixar movie named for the French stew. He smiles proudly.

Later, he ticks off all the recipes he’s made with Phillips—macaroni and cheese, meat loaf, pineapple upside-down cake—and says he dreams of being a contestant on one of those kids cooking shows on TV.

The cooking lessons started as an extension of after-school tutoring, Phillips explains. Noah was at her apartment one day, ready to start his homework, and stopped to grab a snack first. Assembling a basic salad, Noah asked Phillips if she would teach him to cook. And so, on Tuesdays, they put pencils and paper aside and pick up ladles and pots instead. They wear matching cooking aprons.

"It isn't the government imposing a solution on folks; it's the community imposing solutions on themselves."

At first, Phillips viewed her time with Noah as a simple act of volunteering. Noah was 7 then and struggling with reading comprehension; she was commuting to a suburban job, visiting siblings regularly, and juggling obligations of her own. But Noah’s academic needs grew. And when Phillips got a technical writing job closer to home, she had more time and energy to give. The homework routine turned into something more than hours of reading and writing: It promised talk, laughter, and cooking. It is, she says definitively, the highlight of her week.

Phillips does not have children or grandchildren of her own. She has Noah.

“He is a blessing to know,” she says.

Eventually, diners fill up on Grandma Reba’s quiche and Noah’s ratatouille. The kids trickle outside, grabbing a basketball and bikes. The adults linger over conversation, some wandering to other tables. And then, among five friends, a game of Farkle breaks out.

Each player has brought her own bag of six dice. One at a time, they roll and tally; different number combinations are worth varying amounts. First to get 10,000 points wins. The play is good-natured but serious. Conners keeps score and occasionally serves as rule reminder. Happiness Hour Farkle is guaranteed; weeknight Farkle is more spontaneous.

But it’s not about Farkle. It could be any game, really.

“It’s the companionship,” one player offers, and the others agree. That’s why they hang around after dinner or go to art class. Or meet in Community Circle. Or gather on the patio. Or in the lobby. Companionship is why they come. And why they stay.