Having a loved one living with diabetes is no doubt a challenging situation. You want to be supportive and show your family member or friend that you care about them and you’re there to help, but maybe you don’t always know the best way to go about doing so. It’s important to remember that no two persons with diabetes are the same. If you’re not sure how to help a loved one—ask. Ask how you can be most helpful, and also ask your loved one to let you know, nicely, when you’re not being helpful. That being said, there are some general “do’s and don’ts” to being a supportive person for someone with diabetes that we think everyone could benefit from following. Here are some of the best tips we have on what to do and what not to do.
- Resist the blame game. No one with diabetes caused it because they are lazy or negligent. There is a genetic predisposition to developing type 2 diabetes and type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease. Your loved one with diabetes is no different from anyone else—we’re all working toward living the healthiest life we can in the best way we know how, and there’s always room to grow. Maybe your loved one is not taking all the steps they could be to manage their disease, but that doesn’t mean they deserve to have diabetes.
- Commenting on what someone is eating is not helpful and comes off as judgmental and stressful. Think about how it would make you feel if someone asked “Should you eat that?” or some version of that every time you ate a meal. No one wants to feel criticized about what they eat, diabetes or not. Instead, you can invite your friend over for a healthy meal that you cooked or if you live with the person, suggest picking out a healthy recipe together and offer to help cook. Focus more on encouraging rather than criticizing them. And, having a willingness to change your own eating habits to accommodate your loved one is even better.
- If your loved one says they don’t want or need your help with something, try to respect it. Managing diabetes day in and day out can be very overwhelming, and sometimes the best way you can help is by taking a step back and letting your loved one take control of their own disease.
- On the other hand, let your loved one know you’re willing to help deal with some of their management if they feel comfortable with it or simply need to take a break. Diabetes is extremely demanding and sometimes having a friend or spouse take over some of the tasks like checking blood sugar for us, changing our CGM, picking up our insulin from the pharmacy, and so on, really helps alleviate some of the burden of the disease.
- Do your best to stay positive and set a positive example, but keep it real at the same time. Some days living with diabetes just sucks, and as persons living with diabetes, sometimes we just want someone we love to acknowledge that this disease is tough and that we’re doing our best. Diabetes wears everyone down, family and friends included, but being open and keeping it real about the downsides to this disease helps us deal with them quicker and get back to a more positive space.
- When referring to your loved one with diabetes in conversation, don’t call them a “diabetic.” We know you think of your loved one as so many other amazing things other than someone who is living with diabetes, so your language should reflect that view. Sure, it’s quicker to say “diabetic” than “person with diabetes” but labeling someone with an adjective can be hurtful and make the person feel that they are somehow less than people without diabetes. Take the extra time to be mindful and use language that puts the person before the disease.
- If you see your loved one is struggling with some aspect of this disease, don’t ignore it. We’re all afraid of saying the wrong thing in a situation but it’s always better to say something even if it’s, “I’m not sure what to say” or “I don’t want to offend you by saying this.” Chances are your loved one will appreciate that you reached out, especially if they are feeling depressed, defeated, or overwhelmed. And, if you do notice they seem sadder than usual, suggest they see a mental health professional.
- When it comes to exercise, don’t criticize or nag the person in an attempt to motivate them to be more active. Again, just like with food, no one wants to feel like they are being judged. Suggest to your friend or family member that you do something active together like going for a hike or meet up for a Zumba class instead of meeting for coffee where you are sitting the whole time. Or better yet, take your coffee to go and walk around the block. Exercise feels a lot less like exercise when you add a social component to it.
- When it comes to managing diabetes in public, ask your loved one beforehand how you can be helpful to them and how they like to handle their diabetes in public places. Some people don’t want any extra attention paid to them while they check their blood sugar or take their insulin at a restaurant while others appreciate it. Asking every fifteen minutes, “Do you need to eat something?” or “Did you check your blood sugar?” might come from a good place but again, can be overwhelming for the person on the receiving end. Each person and situation is different so try to be flexible for your loved one.
- If you’re a caregiver for someone with diabetes, remember that caregiver burnout is real and don’t let fear or shame keep you from reaching out for help. Diabetes impacts every single person who comes into contact with it. You might not be personally feeling the highs and lows of diabetes, but you’re still affected by the mood swings, stress, and unpredictability of this disease. Remember the principle of putting on your own oxygen mask before someone else’s—your own wellbeing and self-care are a necessity to help your loved one. We all deserve to feel our very best and prioritizing yourself isn’t selfish. We know your loved one with diabetes would agree.
Watch our Diabetes Live Talk for more discussion on having loved ones with diabetes. And be sure to reach out to us in the GlucoseZone with your own tips on how to be a source of support for someone with diabetes!
By: Lauren Szalkiewicz and LaurieAnn Scher, MS, RD, CDE