HealthcareBarbara Huelat: Designing Healing Environments and Transforming Dementia Care

Barbara Huelat

Barbara Huelat experienced the healing power of design early in her career. The encounter began with a simple request for new draperies from a woman named Lucy, but as Barbara got to know her, she learned Lucy had some deeper needs.

The darkness that had taken over Lucy’s home was a reflection of the despair she was feeling from losing a loved one and suffering from a heart attack. Lucy needed healing, and Barbara leveraged design to foster it.

“Together we transformed her home from a gloomy space into a bright, fresh haven that ultimately changed her life,” Barbara recalls.

The encounter with Lucy launched Barbara into a career that has taken her across the country and around the world to design healing environments. Through her Healing Design firm, she has designed hospitals, clinics, senior living spaces, and other medical facilities. With each project, she brings a passion for using design to improve the healthcare experience for patients, families, and staff.

“Collaborating with Lucy over the course of a few years not only revitalized her living environment, but also motivated me to pursue a unique path,” Barbara shares. “Rather than delving deeper into design, she taught me to explore the realm of behavioral science. That led me to graduate school where I explored how our surroundings can influence our healing.”

Solving complex problems within the healthcare space

Barbara serves clients with a broad range of services aimed at furthering the impact of healing design. Her healing design consulting services empower clients to tackle complex health issues through design. She evaluates built environments, recommends upgrades that support healing, and provides trend forecasting that allows designers to anticipate needs and design for greater impact.

As a project advocate, Barbara represents her clients in all phases of the design process, including conducting fact-finding research to gather data on issues relevant to the specific project. Her expertise allows clients to ensure efforts are delivering the most effective outcomes.

Barbara also specializes in providing evidence-based design research. Her experience has shown her that skepticism is one of the key challenges to the work she does. As a result, she has an unwavering commitment to research-driven design substantiated by solid evidence. Clients come to her for assistance with research studies that focus on the variety of ways built environments can provide improved health outcomes.

Bringing transformative insights to dementia care

Design focused on dementia care is a specialty that Barbara developed while caring for her loved ones. Her mother, father-in-law, and husband all suffered from dementia, and Barbara played a role in providing care for each of them.

The experiences provided Barbara with unique insights into how design can serve both dementia patients and caregivers, and even led her to author “Taming the Chaos of Dementia: A Caregiver’s Guide to Interventions that Make a Difference.”

“The book is a hopeful and practical guide to taming the challenges of dementia with creative interventions,” Barbara explains. “It supports the journey of patients and caregivers by providing practical recommendations enriched with human empathy. By decoding dementia’s visceral world and supporting non-cognitive human experiences, it helps ease the stress brought on by dementia.”

As Barbara experienced first-hand, there are a number of design modifications that can transform a home into a healthier place for dementia patients. She explores many of those modifications in her book, including designs that keep dementia patients from unnecessary injuries. Her insights also pinpoint the environmental stressors that can trigger disruptive behaviors.

The role of happiness in healing design

One of the insights readers receive from Barbara’s book involves the role that happiness plays in healing design. As the book explains, “Everyone, including people with dementia, works better when relaxed and happy and surrounded by things they like.” Barbara’s design work often incorporates a space designed for fostering happiness.

“In my professional projects, I’ve adopted the concept of ‘The Third Place’ inspired by the work of sociologist Ray Oldenburg,” Barbara explains. “Oldenburg suggests that our first place is our home, our second place is our workplace or school, and our third place is our cherished retreat — which I refer to as our ‘happy place.’”

Barbara customizes happy places to cater to diverse needs. In a senior living facility, for example, she might include a bistro for afternoon gatherings or a sunlit solarium for morning bird watchers.

“Recently, I learned that residents — many of whom are veterans — at a memory care facility which I designed years ago have added an ‘Officers Club’ to their space,” Barbara shares. “It serves as a gathering spot for veterans to reminisce about past wars, discuss current politics, and play cards. It has become their happy place and I absolutely love it.”

How digitalization is transforming dementia care

Barbara sees innovations ushered in by digitalization to be a boon to dementia care, offering a glimmer of hope that technology-driven solutions can provide much-needed support to overwhelmed caregivers.

“We have already witnessed the transformative impact of smart technology on individuals with dementia and their caregivers,” Barbara says. “Home monitoring systems in every room, safe appliances that automatically shut off, and voice-activated lights, doors, and entertainment systems all make it easier to live with dementia. Additionally, wearable GPS technology designed for dementia wandering ensures the safe return of loved ones who may have strayed far from home.”

Barbara also points to the vast potential social robotics and virtual reality hold for enhanced dementia care. VR goggles can allow those who have lost mobility to dementia to experience the joy of virtual outings. Robots that can sing, dance, and even cuddle also promise to assist in meeting the needs of dementia patients.

The belief that our environment can play a powerful role in improving our health is at the center of healing design. Barbara Huelat has spent a lifetime promoting that belief and employing it in service to others. She is a passionate designer who is committed to using her unique voice to advocate for better care and to inspire others to use design to promote healing.

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