November is Diabetes Awareness Month, and November 14th is World Diabetes Day. Diabetes is an autoimmune disease in which the body struggles to or is unable to naturally produce insulin, a hormone that controls the movement of glucose from the bloodstream to the cells of the body. In 2018, 34.2 million Americans, or 10.5% of the population, had diabetes, which means you likely know at least one person with diabetes.
Once a person is diagnosed with diabetes, they are required to undergo many lifestyle changes, from dietary and activity habits to new medications to frequent health screenings and more. Despite the overwhelming influx of changes diabetics must make in their daily routines, diabetes is an independently manageable disease. But one requirement for managing diabetes that is rarely discussed is the need for a strong support network.
Just like with any disease or chronic illness, a strong support network can have a positive impact on someone’s confidence in their diabetes management. If you have recently been introduced to someone with diabetes, or you or a loved one has been recently diagnosed, here is some advice and tips on what makes a great diabetes support system. This information is based on my personal experiences as a type 1 diabetic.
You’re In This Together
I was 8 years old when I was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes in July 2004. I was hospitalized for 3 days while doctors and medical staff tried to get my blood sugars under control, and my family and I took classes on managing diabetes, proper procedures for taking insulin, lifestyle restrictions and adjustments, and more. On day 1 of my hospitalization, the doctor sat down with my mother and told her, “You have to be in this together, or she will die.”
This was to say that I needed support and reinforcement in adapting to new lifestyle changes via family participation, or risk having major health complications. If my diet had to go sugar-free, so did my family’s. If I had to pay attention to my blood sugar readings, so did my family.
While the doctor’s phrasing may have sounded extreme, it was not inaccurate. At 8 years old, I lacked the understanding and responsibility to manage a chronic illness on my own. I needed my family, my greatest support network, by my side to endure these changes with me. Otherwise, I may not have been motivated enough to endure them by myself.
Anyone facing a new chronic condition will inevitably be required to make lifestyle changes, from adapting routines to establishing new ones. However, it becomes easier to adapt to these changes when they are not the only ones having to adapt to them. If a family member, partner, roommate, or other loved one is diagnosed with diabetes, consider some of the ways that you can adapt your lifestyles together.
For example, you can set up dietary and exercise plans together. Make reminders for them to take medications (if applicable). Or simply check in now and then to see how they are doing and what help or support they may need.
Health Comes First. Always.
With the novel coronavirus threat, diabetics and those with other chronic health conditions must take extra precautions to prevent a COVID-19 diagnosis, such as physical-distancing. However, even without the threat of COVID-19, there are times when managing diabetes can make simple everyday happenings more complicated.
For example, I always need to be mindful of any activities I partake in, foods I consume, and other external factors that can impact my blood sugars. This is especially true on days when my blood sugar readings are out of control, and the usual methods of getting them under control either do not work or backfire. There are also days when I run out of insulin when I am away from home or something goes wrong with my medical devices, and I am forced to cancel plans or cut them short.
This can be embarrassing, as well as inconvenient. So, the most important thing that a diabetic’s support network can do is be understanding and remember that their health comes first, especially when emergencies occur. Maybe they have to cut plans short to go home because they ran out of insulin. Maybe they don’t feel comfortable going out to eat when their blood sugars are out of control. Maybe they would rather hang out virtually instead of in-person so that they do not risk their health to the novel coronavirus. Be willing to be flexible if plans must change due to concerns for their health. It must come first. Always.
Managing diabetes is just as much of a mental struggle as it is a physical one. It is exhausting having to monitor and manage blood sugars 24/7 while also dealing with everyday tasks, challenges, and life in general. Even accepting a diagnosis can be a struggle and manifest as anger and even denial of one’s diagnosis. So, it is no surprise that mental health disorders, such as depression and anxiety, are common with diabetes. Diabetics are 2-3 times more likely to have depression than non-diabetics.
For these reasons, diabetics must practice self-care. This is where a strong support network can be most proactive with their involvement in their loved one’s diabetes management. Self-care does not have to be done alone.
For example, one of my favorite pastimes is going for long walks at my local park. It is a light form of exercise that does not have a harsh impact on my blood sugars the way that other workouts do, and it gives me time to reconnect with nature. While I enjoy doing it alone, it is always more enjoyable to do with friends and family, since it gives me a chance to reconnect with them too. It has also played a large role in my mental health and I always feel happier once I come back home.
Whether a diabetic loved one is struggling with their diabetes management or mental health or not, reach out to them. Invite them to participate in an activity you both love, whether it is walking, fishing, shopping, or just getting a cup of coffee. Try surprising them with a diabetic-friendly treat, or, again, reach out to see how they are feeling and remind them that they have support. A little empathy goes a long way.
Being a T1 diabetic for 16 years, I have gotten my fair share of questions from people about my diabetes, how it works, can I eat XYZ, etc., and I am always happy to answer them to the best of my ability. However, I also end up encountering plenty of myths and misinformation about diabetes. I cannot count how many times strangers have asked me if my continuous glucose monitor (CGM) is a nicotine patch.
While most diabetics would likely be happy to answer any questions about their experience with the disease, being treated as the only source of information can also cause them to feel like they are just their illness. While this is never intended by the asker, it can feel frustrating nevertheless.
If you are curious about how an insulin pump works, if there are foods diabetics can/cannot have, what to do in case they have a low blood sugar, or whatever questions you have, do your own research. There are resources, such as the American Diabetes Association (ADA), Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF), or the Center for Disease Control (CDC), have plenty of up-to-date information that can answer your questions. And if the information you find is different from what you have noticed in your loved one’s management, ask them about it and why. Keep in mind that every diabetic manages their diabetes differently, based on lifestyle, type of diabetes, and other factors.
I want to disclaim that I am not a medical professional and nothing I have written should be considered medical advice. If you have questions about treatments and therapies for diabetes, or simply want a professional opinion and education, you can refer to the resources listed above or contact your local physician for more information.
Every diabetic is bound to have ups and downs, highs and lows, eases and struggles, etc. in their diabetes management. However, no one with any chronic condition has to go through it alone. As previously mentioned, if you know someone with diabetes, reach out to them and ask how you can better support them. And celebrate Diabetes Awareness Month by signing petitions advocating for affordable insulin.