Approximately 29 million Americans live with diabetes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Type 2 diabetes is the most common, making up about 90 to 95 percent of all cases. So chances are, you know at least one person living with this disease.
Type 2 diabetes is very different from type 1 diabetes. A person diagnosed with type 1 doesn't make any insulin, whereas people living with type 2 are insulin resistant, which can lead to a reduction in insulin production over time. In other words, their body doesn't use insulin properly and also may not make enough insulin, so it’s harder for them to maintain a normal blood sugar level. Type 2 diabetes often has no symptoms, though some people experience symptoms such as including increased thirst, hunger, and urination, fatigue, blurry vision, and frequent infections. But the good news is that the disease is controllable.
If you know someone living with type 2 diabetes, you may be concerned about their health and well-being. This is a chronic illness requiring lifelong maintenance. You can’t remove the disease, but you can offer support, comfort, and kindness in a number of ways.
1. Don’t nag!
Needless to say, you want your loved one to stay healthy and avoid diabetes complications. The risk of type 2 diabetes complications increases when blood glucose levels aren’t properly managed over long periods of time. Complications can include heart attack, stroke, nerve damage, kidney damage, and eye damage.
It’s frustrating when a person with diabetes makes unhealthy choices, but there’s a thin line between providing ongoing support and nagging. If you start lecturing or acting like the diabetes police, your loved one may shut down and refuse your help.
2. Encourage healthy eating
Some people living with type 2 diabetes manage their illness with insulin therapy or other diabetes medications, whereas others don’t need to take medications. Whether or not they take medication(s), it’s crucial to make healthy lifestyle choices, which includes adopting good eating habits.
For someone who is newly diagnosed, a change in eating habits can be a challenge, but it is critical to normalize blood sugar and avoid complications. Be a source of encouragement by first joining their education classes or meeting with their dietitian and learning the best diet strategies, and then helping them make better meal choices and doing it alongside them. If you eat unhealthy foods around them, this makes it harder for them to stick to a nutritious routine. Limit your intake of sugary drinks, as well as highly processed and prepared foods, in their presence. Instead, join them in experimenting with wholesome, diabetes-friendly recipes.
There's no specific diabetes diet, but together you can plan meals including vegetables, whole grains, fruit, low-fat dairy, healthy fats, and lean protein sources. You’ll help your friend or relative manage their disease, plus improve your health. A healthy and balanced diet can help you shed excess pounds and reduce your risk of developing diabetes, heart disease, and other illnesses.
3. Attend a diabetes support group with them
Whether your loved one is newly diagnosed or has lived with diabetes for years, the disease can be frustrating and overwhelming. Sometimes, people with diabetes need an outlet to express themselves and vent. Encourage the person to attend a diabetes support group, and offer to go along. Both of you can receive support and learn strategies to cope with your feelings and the disease.
4. Offer to attend doctor appointments
Be specific when making yourself available to help someone with diabetes. Statements such as “Let me know how I can help” are too broad and most people won't take you up on the offer. But if you’re specific with the type of help you can offer, they may welcome the support.
For example, offer to drive them to their next doctor’s appointment, or offer to pick up their medication from the pharmacy. If you go to a doctor’s appointment, offer to take notes. This may help them recall important information later on. Also, don't be afraid to ask the doctor questions. The more you understand about type 2 diabetes, the more quality support you can provide. Pick up a few pamphlets while in the office and educate yourself on how the disease affects people.
5. Be observant to drops in blood sugar
Sometimes, people with type 2 diabetes experience a drop in blood sugar. This can cause cloudy thinking, fatigue, and weakness. Find out if your loved one is at risk for low blood sugar, and then learn what the symptoms are and how to treat it if they are. Be mindful of these symptoms and speak up if you notice a change in their behavior. You may become aware of low blood sugar symptoms before they are.
If so, encourage them to check their blood sugar levels. It’s also helpful to discuss (in advance) what to do in the event of a blood sugar drop. Since low blood sugar can cause confusion, your loved one may be unable to articulate the steps to raise their blood sugar in the moment.
6. Exercise together
Regular physical activity is just as important as a healthy diet for those managing type 2 diabetes. Being active and losing weight can lower blood glucose. And while sticking to a regular exercise routine can be challenging, it’s often easier to exercise when you’re accountable to someone. Offer to become workout buddies and get together a few times a week. The target for a week is 30 minutes of activity most days, though if you do vigorous activity, you can get away with three to four days a week. You can also break the 30 minutes down into 10 minute segments. You and your loved one can take three 10-minute walks after meals, or walk for 30 minutes in a row.
The most important thing is to pick something you both like to do. This way, you will stick with it, and it won’t feel like such a chore. Exercise options include aerobic activity like walking or biking, strength training, and flexibility exercises. This benefits both of you. You’ll have increased energy, less stress, and a lower risk of developing illnesses, including heart disease and cancer.
7. Be positive
A diabetes diagnosis can be scary, especially since there's always the risk of complications. Diabetes is the 7th leading cause of death in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Although life-threatening complications can happen, you should keep conversations positive when speaking to someone living with type 2 diabetes. They are most likely aware of the possible complications, so they don't need to hear about people who died from diabetes or had limbs amputated. Offer positive support, not negative stories.
You may feel helpless when a loved one is diagnosed with diabetes, but your strength and support can help this person get through the toughest times. Be positive, offer specific help, and learn as much about the disease as possible. These efforts may seem insignificant from your vantage point, but they can make a huge difference in someone’s life.
Valencia Higuera is a freelance writer who develops high-quality content for personal finance and health publications. She has more than a decade of professional writing experience, and has written for several reputable online outlets: GOBankingRates, Money Crashers, Investopedia, The Huffington Post, MSN.com, Healthline, and ZocDoc. Valencia has a B.A in English from Old Dominion University and currently resides in Chesapeake, Virginia. When she isn’t reading or writing, she enjoys volunteering, traveling, and spending time outdoors. You can follow her on Twitter: @vapahi