According to the American Diabetes Association, nearly 30 million children and adults in the U.S. have diabetes and an additional 86 million Americans have prediabetes and are at risk for developing type 2 diabetes in the near future. This prevalence means it is likely that you know or will know someone with the disease.
For the newly diagnosed, diabetes can bring an overwhelming list of lifestyle changes necessary to remain healthy. However, Christie Hust, M.S., R.D.N., certified diabetes educator at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center (TTUHSC) Larry Combest Community Health and Wellness Center, says it can also be difficult for loved ones of those with diabetes to navigate the needs and factors associated with diabetes.
“Diabetes is complicated,” Hust explained. “A person with diabetes is often overwhelmed with everything they have to do, the medicines they have to take and the doctors they have to see. It can be too much.”
For the loved ones of someone newly diagnosed, there can be high anxiety about the prognosis and coping with the disease. Hust explains that the concern is valid, but there is hope, especially with a supportive network of family and friends.
“Diabetes is one of the silent killer diseases,” Hust said. “People may look and feel fine, but damage is occurring that they cannot even see. It is a progressive disease, which means the longer someone has it, the harder it is to control. Become involved in the person’s diabetes care. Know what the person with diabetes will be doing, what medications they should be taking and how often they should check their sugars.”
Even with diligent diabetes care, Hust explains the disease can be unpredictable, which is stressful to the person with diabetes and their family.
“They can be doing everything ‘right’ and still have high blood sugars,” Hust said. “People don’t realize that pain, stress and illness make the blood sugars go up. The person will feel stressed about their blood sugars and then their blood sugars will go up. It is often a vicious cycle that is hard for people to get out of.”
That cycle has been known to get out of control and lead to depression. If your loved one with diabetes is exhibiting signs of depression, Hust says there are things you can do to help.
“Many people with diabetes also have depression,” Hust explained. “While depression is normal, it shouldn’t go untreated. If a person with diabetes is depressed, it makes the job of managing their diabetes even harder. If a person with diabetes is depressed, encourage them to talk to their doctor.”
Managing diabetes requires vigilant monitoring of blood sugars to be sure the person with diabetes is not having an episode of hypoglycemia (low blood sugars) or hyperglycemia (high blood sugars) and also watching for telltale signs that something is wrong related to the person’s diabetes.
“The signs of low blood sugars are shaking, sweating, anxiety, headache, dizziness, weakness and being upset,” Hust said. “ The signs of high blood sugars are thirst, increased trips to the bathroom, dry skin, fatigue and slow healing cuts and wounds.”
Hust said that in a low- or high-blood sugars episode, people with diabetes may not notice their symptoms, but their loved ones can pick them out.
“The feeling is different for each person and loved ones need to know the symptoms in general so they can recognize it in the person with diabetes,” Hust said. “As a person with diabetes, I often do not think I am having low blood sugars, but my husband will recognize it and help me test and treat it.”
For family members, Hust says it can be tempting to try to control your loved one’s lifestyle choices to protect them. However, Hust says the most-effective thing you can do for your loved one is be supportive.
“I’m big on not nagging,” Hust said. “Nothing is more discouraging than having the diabetes police watching your every move. People with diabetes are normal people and still want to enjoy life. There is nothing wrong with a person with diabetes enjoying dessert occasionally. Nagging can make the person with diabetes resentful and can tear apart relationships.”
Hust says instead to look at your loved one’s pursuit of a healthy lifestyle as an opportunity to encourage the whole family to practice healthy habits.
“If you are a person with diabetes, nothing is harder than trying to follow a meal plan when the rest of the family is eating pizza,” Hust said. “Eating a healthy diet will benefit the entire family.”