On any given day in the United States, about 400,000 children are in foster care, living with and cared for by people who aren’t their biological parents. Many have suffered abuse, neglect, and other serious traumas, which frequent moves and separation from siblings can compound.

While most of these children eventually return to their nuclear families, about 70,000 won’t. When a child’s biological parents have died, been incarcerated, or proved unhealthy or unsafe, grandmothers, aunts, or other relatives are often called on short notice to step in as adoptive parents or guardians. But many lack adequate housing and the emotional support they need to care for traumatized foster children, and if they’re single adoptive parents, the challenges can be overwhelming.

While the problems of foster children, adoptive parents, and older adults are different and difficult to solve, well-planned, “multigenerational villages” can help address them simultaneously. High-quality, affordable housing and supportive environments that intentionally bring together young and older people of diverse races, backgrounds, and ages promote deep connections among residents who help one another improve their lives.

The first intergenerational community designed to help foster children join permanent families was conceived by sociology professor Brenda Krause Eheart. Her idea was to locate families with similar challenges in close proximity so that they could share resources and experiences, and to include older adults who needed community and could support families with their time, skills, and caring. The result was Hope Meadows, opened in 1996 in Rantoul, Illinois.

Over the past 10 years, we’ve learned a lot about creating effective intergenerational communities, and hope the following insights will help others seeking to provide permanent homes and community support to children, adoptive parents, and older adults.

  1. Set clear expectations. 
  2. Use architecture and design to promote connections.
  3. Provide commitment, consistency, and connection to foster children. 
  4. Help elders discover ways to connect with young people. 
  5. Confront and embrace difference. 

Read the full article about intergenerational programs by Derenda Schubert, Renee Moseley, Lindsay Magnuson, and Sarah Feldman at Stanford Social Innovation Review.