During the 2023 Healthcare Design Conference + Expo in New Orleans in early November, The Center for Health Design presented its 2023 Changemaker Award to Barbara Huelat of Healing Design – Human Centric Solutions (Alexandria, Va.).

The annual Changemaker Award honors individuals or organizations that have demonstrated the ability to change the way healthcare facilities are designed and built and whose work has had broad impact on the advancement of healthcare design.

Huelat has spent her career as a healthcare designer, strategist, researcher, caregiver, author, and speaker. Her portfolio of industry contributions include projects with the Mayo Clinic (Rochester, Minn.), National Institutes of Health (Bethesda, Md.), Sentara Northern Virginia Medical Center (Woodbridge, Va.), King Faisal Specialist Hospital & Research Center (Riyadh, Saudi Arabia), and U.S. Department of Veterans Hospitals’ Planetree facilities.

During the presentation, Huelat’s daughter Sharon Pochron, associate professor at Stony Brook University (Stony Brook, N.Y.), led a Q+A with her mother about her career path, discovery of evidence-based design, and research and work on designing for dementia patients.

Huelat says her interest in healthcare design was sparked at a young age as a Brownie in Girl Scouts, where her troop gave handmade Christmas gifts to a local nursing home. “I remember walking through what seemed like a human warehouse of older people and seeing their faces and blank stares. It was an image of sadness and hopelessness,” she said. “As a child I wondered, ‘Is this what happens to people when they get old?’ ”

That experience made an impression on Huelat and fueled a desire to create healing environments that centered on patient needs to support healing.

A pivotal moment in her early career that led to her passion for evidence-based design came while presenting with a big architectural firm at Hamot Hospital in Erie, Pa. “I presented all my design boards and my rationale behind what I did,” she recalled. “The chairman of the board got up and pounded his fist on the table and said, ‘Don’t ever talk about this stuff without proof!’ I was humiliated and I said never, never, never again will I present anything without knowing why it works.”

During their discussion on stage, Pochron asked her mother about her personal journey with dementia care, a topic on which Huelat has written books including, most recently, “Taming the Chaos of Dementia.”

Huelat  said that when her loved ones started aging, she learned a lot about dementia and Alzheimer’s disease and became personally involved in their care. “Everything I knew from a professional level, being trained as a dementia caregiver and hospice volunteer, wasn’t enough to help them. I learned about the human side of what it means to take care of someone with dementia.”

One of the personal stories Huelat recounted was about her own mother who had dementia that developed from Parkinson disease. “We reached a point where we could no longer care for her at home and found a facility for her,” Huelat  said. “One day I got a call from the facility saying I had to come get my mother because she escaped and climbed a chain link fence to get out. Who knows where she was going, but she wasn’t going to stay!”

Reflecting on the lessons learned from her research on dementia, Huelat noted that there are two sides of memory affected by dementia: the semantic or cognitive side and the empathetic or emotional side.

“We can’t fix the semantic side, there’s no cure,” she said. “But the emotional side is still intact. This is where design and environmental interventions have such great power in that it can transform human lives into meaningful, joyful experiences and is the magic portal into the brains of individuals living with dementia.”

In closing, Huelat emphasized that she has more work that she wants to accomplish. “Dementia caregiving, as it is today, is not sustainable. More than 62 percent of all dementia caregivers are volunteer and family caregivers, taking care of loved ones at home, without training or knowledge,” she said. “This is a big problem and I want a seat at the table to make a change.”