Supporting a Loved One With Diabetes

Updated on July 7, 2017
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When my partner was first diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, I was a flurry of concern and fear. Here are some tips I've learned along the way.

According to statistics from the American Diabetes Association, over 30 million Americans have diabetes – that's a little over 9% of the population. Chances are that you have at least one friend or family member with diabetes, either type 1 or type 2.

Diabetes is sometimes dismissed by unaffected people because we don't see the toll it can take on a person's body. It's more than just a physical toll – with the finger pricking and insulin injections – there's the emotional toll, as well. There is constant mathematical juggling of "can I eat this when I've already had that?" and "should I take my insulin now or wait a half hour?" that plays in the back of their minds, nonstop.

Discovering that a friend or family member has been diagnosed with diabetes is a turbulent time for all involved. You might feel confused, or unsure of how to help them during this period of adjustment. So what can you do? Is there anything you can do?

Support is key

Yes, support is key, but what is the right kind of support? Well, listening, for starters. Diabetes management is difficult for people to get a handle on at first, and sometimes you just need to let out your frustrations. Having someone that listens and offers support can be invaluable.

Don't try to interject your own opinions into the conversation. Let them grumble and moan if they need to – diabetes is tiring. Their fingers might hurt from testing their blood sugar, or they misjudged an insulin dose and took a nosedive earlier.

Even people that have had diabetes for years and have a firm grasp on it need a lent ear on occasion.

Do not be the food police

I'll admit, this one is a struggle for me.

Food policing might come from concern and love, but it's unwarranted, unnecessary, and rude. Believe me, your loved one is very aware of the food that goes into their mouths now – they've had everyone from doctors to nurses to their nosy great-aunt on Facebook tell them what they can and cannot have, how much insulin they need and when they need it, and the effects of blood sugars highs and lows... and the permanent damage those can do to their bodies.

Your loved one doesn't need a babysitter.

When my partner was first diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, I was a flurry of concern and fear. The first few weeks were such a struggle for him; his blood sugar seemed to randomly drop, only to spike later with no discernible cause. I was afraid for him, and I didn't know what to do. I felt so useless. Eventually, things evened out as he got into the hang of managing his glucose levels, but that anxiety stayed with me. I tried not to, but I found myself monitoring everything he ate; I tried to keep a tally in my head – eat this, not that, do that, not this.

That was not helpful to him, nor to myself.

Trust that your loved one knows what they need. If they indulge, clamp down on the urge to tell them off. That's not your place.

But at the same time...

Be aware

So maybe an ice cream joint isn't the best date idea anymore. There are plenty of places you two can go out and eat that offer diabetic-friendly meals without making it super obvious that you're trying to be careful about where you go.

Any sit-down restaurant is probably going to be a safe bet as long as they have a varied menu, but be sure to give them a head's up. “Oh hey, how do you feel about this restaurant?” allows them an opportunity to prepare themselves for how much insulin they will need.

But if your loved one makes the date to the ice cream parlor, trust that they've measured everything out and have their levels under control.

“Have you tested your blood sugar?”

So this one is a fork in the road, and really just depends on your relationship with your loved one, and their needs. My grandmother flat out asked me to remind her to check her blood sugar – she had a tendency to forget and didn't often notice the early warning signs of her blood sugar spikes. As a consequence, her blood sugar was often dangerously high for extended periods of time, if she wasn't reminded to check it and take a dose of insulin as needed.

My partner, on the other had, didn't want to be bothered about it. He could remember well enough on his own, and was pretty good at reading the signs when his blood sugar started shifting abnormally in either direction.

The best bet is to ask. If at any point, the answer changes, respect it.

Insulin

It's a fact of life for your loved one that they are now reliant on insulin injections to balance their glucose levels. As obvious as this advice sounds, do not draw attention to it. Don't wince, hiss, or make a comment about how you would never be able to do that – because if your life depended on it, yes you would. No one looks forward to their injections; there's no need to make the experience harder.

If you're squeamish about needles, look away. Don't try to force them to hide solely for your comfort. If they choose to go somewhere private, let it be their own decision.

Don't raid their stash

This is a big one for family members or spouses – your loved one will probably start to keep foodstuff on hand in case of a blood sugar crash. This can range from small candies, to soda or juice, to granola bars. Sometimes, they might have glucose tablets, but there's less of a risk of you eating those.

It can be easy to grab up one of these items, mistaking them for a snack, or in a misguided attempt to "clean out the bad stuff." But if the time comes when their blood sugar dips and they don't have their things, the results could be disastrous.

Be polite; don't take without permission.

On the topic of "cleaning out the bad stuff"...

This is another '"ask first." Sometimes, your loved one might need help removing sugary treats from their pantry, because it's too tempting. If that's the case, offer to help, otherwise keep your mitts off their food.

Learn the symptoms of a blood sugar crash/spike:

This is imperative. You need to be able to recognize these quickly, because your loved one might not. This is especially true in the case of a blood sugar crash, which can cause disorientation.

The symptoms of low blood sugar may include, but are not limited to:

  • Shakiness
  • Fatigue
  • Hunger
  • Dizziness
  • Disorientation
  • Anxiety
  • Mood swings

The symptoms of high blood sugar are:

  • Increased thirst
  • Headaches
  • Frequent urination
  • Blurry vision
  • Difficulty focusing
  • Fatigue

Of the two, low blood sugar is the most immediately concerning and dangerous. If your loved one is displaying any of those symptoms or is acting in a worrying manner, gently ask if they've measured their blood sugar levels recently. If at any point your loved one loses consciousness or becomes unresponsive, call emergency services. Be sure to alert them that your loved one is diabetic.

Be the defense squad

It is inevitable that someone – be they a friend or family member – is going to try to get on your loved one's case about their diabetes. They might food police, or judge what's on their plate, or badger them with invasive, personal questions about what they've had to eat or their blood sugar levels.

Back up your loved one and put those rude people in their place.

Attend a diabetic support meeting

There's usually at least one hospital or community center where people with diabetes and their friends or family meet to get to know other people with diabetes and talk about their management. If there's one nearby, offer to go with your loved one. A support network is invaluable, and can help a newly diagnosed person feel less alone.

Otherwise, browse for online forums. These are usually great places for swapping diabetic-friendly recipes and connecting with people in your situation.

But above all...

Communicate

It sounds simple, but you might be surprised how little people bother. Ask your loved one questions, especially if at any point you feel like you might make a faux-pas. Open a dialogue and listen to what they say. Managing diabetes isn't easy, and trying to juggle friends and family poking their noses in on everything on top of that is the kind of stress they don't need.

Give them a place to rest their heads and lay their worries. Talk about your own concerns and clear the air. You'll both feel better afterwards.

How many people do you know with diabetes?

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