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How to support a loved one with diabetes

A woman watching her loved one use an insulin shot

A good caregiver offers support while respecting their loved one’s needs. These tips can help you strike that balance.

If someone you love has type 2 diabetes, you’re probably eager to help. And that’s a good instinct. Managing diabetes can be a lot of work.

It involves day-to-day tasks such as checking blood sugar, taking medicine and staying on top of doctor visits. Plus, you often have to make some major life changes.

“It’s hard to change your behaviors,” says Andrea Salzberg, MD. She’s an endocrinologist at New West Physicians Specialty Center, part of Optum, in Golden, Colorado. Many of our daily habits are wrapped up in what we do with our loved ones, she explains. So making changes is hard to do alone.

Your support can help your spouse, parent or partner stay on track and stay healthy. But it’s also important to listen to what that person needs. Here’s what to do and what not to do.

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What you can do for your loved one with diabetes

Thankfully, there’s a lot you can do for your loved one who’s living with diabetes. And that can begin with you. Below, find 3 helpful tips.

1. Learn about diabetes

To help your loved one manage their diabetes, you’ll need to understand some of the basics. For example, you’ll want to know:

  • What blood sugar is and why it’s so important
  • What makes your blood sugar go up or down
  • What your loved one needs to do to keep their blood sugar at a healthy level
  • What the signs of low and high blood sugar are
  • When your loved one needs emergency care
  • What the potential complications of diabetes are (and how to avoid them)

The more you understand about managing diabetes, the more sensitive you’ll be to what your loved one is going through. (For a deep dive, check out “What do I need to know about type 2 diabetes?”)

Ask your loved one if you can come to their medical appointments. It’s a chance for you to understand their doctor’s orders. And you can help out by taking notes or asking questions. If you need a doctor you can trust, we can help. Search Optum providers near you. 

Go to classes offered by your loved one’s care team too. “I think the place where having family is even more important are nutrition counseling and diabetes classes,” says Dr. Salzberg. This is where you can learn more about lifestyle changes such as eating healthier and exercising more.

Talk about what you learned after class. You can also brainstorm ways that you might make changes together. This helps make sure that you’re both on the same page about what to do going forward.

2. Offer encouragement

It’s easy to fixate on things that your loved one does wrong. But remember, they’re living with diabetes 24/7. They won’t do everything perfectly all the time. And that’s okay.

Instead of commenting when you think they’re doing something wrong, point out the things they’re doing right. For example, you might say something like:

  • “I know it’s been hard to get in the habit of checking your blood sugar regularly. But I’m proud of you for checking it every morning this week. You’re making great progress!”

3. Pay attention to their emotional health

Diabetes isn’t an easy condition to have. It can take a toll on a patient’s mental health. People with diabetes are more likely to have depression. And less than half of them, on average, get the care they need.1

One-third to half of people with diabetes will experience diabetes burnout too.1 That’s when managing their diabetes can lead to distress or depression.

Feeling down can make it harder for them to take care of themselves. This can lead to higher blood sugar and an increased risk of complications.2

Signs of diabetes burnout include:

  • Changes in appetite, like overeating or not wanting to eat at all
  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Feeling tired or edgy
  • Having trouble making decisions 
  • Losing interest in everyday activities

If you notice any of these signs, ask your loved one how they’re doing. And give them space to vent if they need to.

You might recommend talking to their doctor for help. You can get care for depression and burnout. And the earlier they’re caught, the better.

Need support for you or a loved one? Refresh Mental Health centers offer mental health and substance abuse services online and at 300 places nationwide. Find support. 

What not to do for your loved one with diabetes

Okay, so now you’re up to speed on what to do for your loved with diabetes. Here’s what not to do. Take these 3 additional tips to heart.

1. Don’t micromanage their care

It’s easy to get swept up in the details of caring for someone. But it’s important to respect their feelings about when they want (and don’t want) your help.

The best way to know is to ask them. For example, maybe they want you to help them remember to check their blood sugar. Or to find new recipes to try. If they’re not sure, suggest ways that you could help, and see how they feel about it.

Talking it through will help build trust. And trust is key in a caregiving relationship. It will also take away some of your stress if you know exactly what your role is and what your loved one expects from you.

2. Don’t assume you know what’s best for them

There’s no one right way to manage diabetes, says Dr. Salzberg. “Everyone needs to forge their own path. Thinking that you have the right answer for someone, rather than letting them find their own course, I think is the most harmful.”

Meeting your loved one where they are is also important, she adds. Let them set their own realistic goals and priorities.

For example, maybe you think they need to stop drinking soda. But they may feel that cutting back or switching to diet soda is the best they can do right now.

It’s better to respect their limits and help them reach their own goals. Don’t push your own agenda on them.

3. Don’t be the food or exercise police

Your loved one may need to make some major changes to what they eat and how much physical activity they get. And that takes support, says Dr. Salzberg. But there’s a fine line between being helpful and being critical.

You may mean well when you offer advice. But to your loved one, it can feel more like criticism. It’s a good idea to always ask before giving advice. For example, if you’re going out to eat, ask them if they want help deciding what to order. Don’t just assume they want your suggestions.

What’s Dr. Salzberg’s advice? Provide healthy choices, rather than telling them what to do. In the end, they need to make their own choices.

Don’t forget about your own health

Being a caregiver can take a toll on your health too. About 1 in 4 caregivers find it difficult to care for their own health, according to a 2020 survey.3

Remember to take time for yourself to relax and de-stress. Get involved in something that’s just for you, such as a:

  • Community group
  • Movie night with friends
  • Book club
  • Yoga class

Consider joining a support group for caregivers too. You may find comfort in connecting with others who are going through the same thing.

Remember, taking care of yourself is what allows you to be a better caregiver. In fact, one study found that people with diabetes did better when their caregivers were less stressed.4 You owe it to yourself, and your loved one, to give yourself a break.

Diabetes care is a journey, for you and your loved one. You’re both bound to make mistakes along the way. But always remember that you’re on each other’s team.

SOURCES

  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Diabetes and mental health. Last reviewed November 3, 2022. Accessed January 24, 2023.
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Dealing with diabetes burnout. Last reviewed June 20, 2022. Accessed January 23, 2023.
  3. AARP and the National Alliance for Caregiving. Caregiving in the U.S. Published May 2020. Accessed January 24, 2023.
  4. Journal of Public Health Research. Correlation between the burden of family caregivers and health status of people with diabetes mellitus. Published April 27, 2022. Accessed January 24, 2023.

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