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The holiday shopping season often brings a perennial question to mind: What’s the etiquette for giving diabetes-related gifts to people who live with this condition?

Maybe the song Twelve Days of Christmas could help us navigate that issue… given its chirping about all the alternative gifts “my true love gave to me.”

But it’s never that easy in the real world, is it? One person’s true love has an apartment that’s too small for a tree. Or he or she is lactose intolerant or has celiac disease. And pears are pretty high-carb anyway.

Yeah. Holiday gift giving can be challenging. But wait a sec, should diabetes even come into the holiday gift-giving thought process at all?

Well, there’s no shortage of people saying that our diabetes, while not defining us, certainly defines what we ought to receive. From the dawn of Black Friday right up to the wire, we see a barrage of social media sites posting diabetes gift guides. They include everything from diabetes cookbooks to supply cases and bags, to various attire and medical jewelry.

If you search online for “gifts for a person with diabetes,” you’re hit with a barrage of guides listing things like organic gift baskets, foot massagers and thermal socks, sugar-free chocolates, medical bracelets, and fruit infuser bottles. Some of the more clever items are a small supply bag with bold letters that read “all my diabetes shit,” and a coffee cup that reads “proud owner of a useless pancreas.”

So under what circumstances is it kosher to give a diabetes-related holiday gift to someone with diabetes? Does it make a difference if the giver is a sugar-normal or a fellow PWD (person with diabetes)? Parent or peer? What about the giftee’s age? And how might the choice of gift affect the equation? 

To take a read on this among our community, we broke diabetes gifts down into four broad categories:

  • medical
  • functional
  • humorous / fun
  • homemade / do-it-yourself

We then queried some outspoken folks in the online diabetes community for feedback on how they’d react to these categories of D-stuff appearing under their trees, in their stockings, or arriving on their doorsteps. 

Medical diabetes gifts

Sure, we need a ton of gear and medications to stay healthy, and sometimes it can be hard to afford what we need. But does need to make the gift?

We can always resort to gifting someone a medical product they need, whether it be an insulin pump, supplies to go with a continuous glucose monitor (CGM), or even accessories that might make diabetes life a little less drab.

While it may not be everyone’s preference, no doubt there have been times when a box of CGM sensors under the tree would have been like finding a Lexus with a bow parked in the driveway. So circumstances — as well as personality — have a role to play here.

Long-time advocate and blogger Scott Johnson noted: “If anyone in my circle heard me talking about how much I’d like a gift in this category, I’d appreciate it. But if it were unprovoked or assumed I’d want/need/use it, I’m not sure I’d like/use/appreciate it.”

Gary Scheiner, a diabetes care and education specialist (DCES) at Integrated Diabetes Services and a type 1 himself, says, “Medical stuff doesn’t seem like a ‘gift.’ I’d feel a bit slighted if someone gave me something medical as a gift.”

D-dad, blogger, and activist Bennet Dunlap agrees, pointing out that medical gifts “fail the Would this Bring Joy Outside of Diabetes? test.” He adds that, “While there are aspects of life with diabetes that are gifts — friendships, discovering personal strength and the like — a disease isn’t grounds for a gift.”

Functional D-gifts

OK, so what about practical gifts that aren’t specifically medical, but have functional value in Diabetes Land? For example, gym memberships. Or a Fitbit smartwatch. Or cooking tools. How do those go over?

Practical gifts, points out Dunlap, are, “risky territory,” diabetes or not. “Try giving your spouse a frying pan,” he says.

But to reduce the risk, he has another test to offer: “I would suggest the Who Benefits? test when trying to decide if a practical gift is appropriate. If there’s any chance that you, as the gift giver, will benefit from the gift, proceed with extreme caution.”

He also feels that if you’re giving practical diabetes gifts, “there better be other non-diabetes stuff under the tree and in the stocking as well.”

Still, functional gifts can be a big score. D-advocate and blogger Kelly Kunik says that one of the best diabetes Christmas gifts she ever received was a gym membership given to her by her mother. “It wasn’t specifically for my diabetes, it was because I wanted and needed to work out. I really appreciated (and used) that gift!”

That seems to be the key, says Scheiner. “Practical gifts are nice to get, especially if it’s something I can really use.” The problem is, “People often assume that we need something that we don’t really need.” So how to sort out what you think someone needs and what they really want and need?

Over at the Association of Diabetes Care and Education Specialists, on-staff educator Joanne Rinker says, “Diabetes-themed gifts can be a thoughtful option for people with diabetes, but it definitely depends on the individual.” She suggests “to be sensitive to this, consider running a handful of diabetes-related gift ideas by your family or friends to see if they are of interest. If they aren’t, then that’s your cue to choose a more traditional, non-diabetes-themed gift.”

Humorous and fun D-gifts

There’s no end to clever T-shirts, hats, patches, buttons, coffee cups, posters, and coasters that make light of diabetes. Young companies like Myabetic are also starting to offer “glam” products aimed at making diabetes, well… fun. (Check out their new diabetes bandana and glucose glam Sherpa blanket.)

Myabetic glucose glam blanket

This is the one area where fellow PWDs generally agree that they are open to in the diabetes gift department. Scheiner not only likes humorous gifts but feels they serve a need, saying, “Gotta keep a sense of humor or we’ll all just explode from stress.”

Dunlap feels that humor is fair game as long as the health condition is the joke, not the person with the condition. He also says to be sure everyone’s sense of humor is aligned. Tricky that. One man’s humor is another man’s insult.

The safe bet on this front is to keep it in the “family.” If you are a PWD, then anything you find funny will likely tickle the funny bone of one of your diabetes brothers or sisters. Johnson says he particularly appreciates diabetes humor gifts when they come from “my diabetes homies.”

One caveat: It seems that about half of the diabetes humor items use the now out-of-fashion hot button word “diabetic.” If the gift giver is more a fan of the term PWD — rather than diabetic — then the best-intended gift may backfire.

Homemade diabetes-themed gifts

While this can certainly fit under the umbrella of other categories, it can stand on its own.

Personalizing presents is always a nice touch, especially for those who are more crafty and creative. Making something by hand can also be a fun activity to share before the holiday gift-giving.

Many in the Diabetes Community post pictures online about their homemade D-themed Christmas Tree ornaments, like decorated Omnipods or insulin bottles that have been crafted into a string of lights. Others bring out the paint and markers to turn disposable supplies into festive fun holiday items. And still, others hang Diet Coke cans on their trees as a nod to this condition.

That same artfulness can be employed to make gifts, too. We’ve seen surprisingly charming handcrafted ornaments made from pump and glucose testing supplies, as well as custom bags and carrying cases that capture a PWD’s personality and style.

Age matters

But medical, functional, or humorous, most agree on one thing: Skip the Big D when it comes to the little ones.

Scheiner says, “Kids generally want things that are fun, and like the things that their friends get.” He recommends staying away from diabetes-related gifts for children altogether.

Dunlap is on the same page, saying to remember that, “Kids are kids. The holidays are BIG for them and diabetes probably isn’t their focus. Why bring it in?”

Johnson flatly says, “I think diabetes-related stuff should be off the table for kiddos.”

We wondered if there was any empirical research on the subject, so we reached out to Dr. Bill Polonsky of the Behavioral Diabetes Institute in San Diego. He wasn’t aware of any hard data, but offered the following simple advice from his own life: “When I was a little kid I was always seen as the smart one in the family, and so for birthdays and holidays, I always received dumb crap like dictionaries and encyclopedias as gifts. That was so disappointing. I just wanted toys like everyone else.”

Kunik sums it up simply by saying that when it comes to little ones: “Get the gifts that they ask for.”

All of that said, we can’t see the harm in a new pack of Pump Peelz as a stocking stuffer. But there is one diabetes gift that’s universally reviled…

Sugar-free candy for diabetes? 

Until you’ve actually had the misfortune to consume it, sugar-free candy sounds like a good idea for people with diabetes. Of course, not only is it awful, but a gift of sugar-free candy is the gift of ignorance: PWDs can have regular candy.

Kunik says the worst D-related Christmas gift she ever received was, “Gross ‘diabetic chocolate bars.’ Disgusting and inedible.”

Indeed, these “diabetes-friendly” so-called treats are often packed with chemicals that forced them to be mal-absorbed by your intestines, creating stomach problems. Ugh.

Scheiner adds that a treat should be a treat. “We can always take insulin to cover (eating) the occasional treat. There’s no need for something ‘sugar free’ that doesn’t taste all that good, gives us gas, and still raises our blood sugar.” 

Or just say no 

If there’s any doubt, the safest bet is to shop for your D-loved ones as if they didn’t have diabetes at all.

Our team at DiabetesMine has summed it up over the years this way: Most people with diabetes want to be seen as more than their illness, no matter how much they blog, tweet, or post about it online.

Unless you know for sure that your friend or relative with diabetes gets a kick out of clever D-related stuff, it’s best to let their unique personality and interests guide your gift giving — instead of focusing on this disease.

Additionally, D-Dad Dunlap offers this final piece of advice: “Gifts are for the unique celebration of your family, tradition, and faith. Diabetes chronically sucks. Why bring suckage from any source into your unique celebration?”

True that.

Happy (Non-Disease-Focused) Holidays, All!