4 Top Ways to Support a Diabetic Family Member

by Yishai Knobel,

You have diabetes.

It’s a diagnosis that brings feelings of denial, anger, and fear – not only to the new patients but also to their friends and family. People want to help, but they often do not know what to do when faced with such a life-changing event.

Below, we have compiled the best information and resources for people who want to know how to help friends and loved ones who suffer from diabetes.

1. Learn everything you can about diabetes

(Of course, the friend or family member should do this as well.) Here are great places to start: the American Association of Diabetes Educators, American Diabetes Association, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. One of the best reasons to do this is to be able to recognize the symptoms of hypoglycemia (low blood-sugar) and hyperglycemia (high blood-sugar) that the family member may miss about themselves.

2. Communicate to reduce everyone’s stress

Communicating is crucial to help to avoid the stress that can result. As WebMD notes:

A diabetes caregiver must be prepared to deal with emotional situations that arise. For instance, the person with diabetes may experience fears, anxiety, or depression. Equally important, you must watch yourself. You, too, can become overwhelmed with caregiver stress. That can put your own physical and mental health at risk. If prolonged, your personal feelings of anxiety, stress, and isolation may become a burden in your own life.

Communication is the key to successfully helping someone with diabetes. Sometimes, it can be difficult for someone to discuss the disease – especially when they have been diagnosed only recently. It’s a scary time. In such a situation, ask the loved one if you can go to their next doctor’s appointment – and then ask the doctor to lead a discussion on what help is typically needed. Remember to be a good listener.

3. Ask how you can help

The National Institutes of Health has a list of sample questions that include these:

  • Do you ever feel down or overwhelmed about all you have to do to manage your diabetes?
  • Have you set goals to manage your diabetes?
  • What things seem to get in the way of reaching your goals?
  • What can I do to help? (Example: Are there things I can do to make it easier for you to live with diabetes? If you want to be more active, will it help if we take walks together?)
  • Have you talked to your healthcare team about your diabetes care and how you want to reach your goals?

4. Daily support is in the details

Diabetes management needs to cover many details, and friends and loved ones can certainly assist:

  • Diet. Cook or help to prepare meals that include fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Forgo sugar-laden desserts and enjoy fresh fruit with your family member instead. Avoid foods with high levels of fat, salt, and cholesterol.
  • Exercise. What activities do you both enjoy? If you both like tennis, play against each other or as a doubles’ team. Or take frequent walks together. Or go out dancing! Older friends and family members may want to start and maintain a garden.
  • Monitoring. This can be a team effort. You can provide gentle reminders about doctor appointments as well as times to check blood-sugar levels and take any medications. For children, it could incorporate a little creativity and be turned into a game.
  • Planning. Offer to help to write a list of questions and concerns for the patient’s doctor, schedule appointments, provide transportation, and document any symptoms that occur. Create an action plan in the event of an emergency.
  • Support. Go with the person to a local diabetes support group and download the free HelpAround app (for iPhone and Android) to get nationwide and global help and support – which is crucial if you live in a remote area!

As our friends at the Joslin Diabetes Center wrote, the two most important guidelines for family members are to have realistic expectations about blood glucose levels and to avoid blame. Family members need your help and the help of your healthcare team in order to understand that you cannot always control blood sugar levels even if you follow your diabetes care plan. Blaming the person with diabetes for high or low blood sugar levels never helps and frequently causes hurt feelings, arguments or serious conflict. The key to genuine support is to avoid blame and focus on problem solving.

We’ve also culled some of the best thoughts from the HelpAround community – both from people who have diabetes and the friends, family, and loved ones who care for them. Here are some additional tips:

  • “The biggest thing is not to nag about it all. You need to just be calm and let them know that you’re just trying to help.”
  • “If it’s a teenager, don’t tell them you understand what they’re going through because you don’t. This will just upset them and get them worked up. It’s hard for people to understand what it’s like.”
  • “It also really helps to be understanding of one’s moods when one’s blood sugar is off.”
  • “Help them feel like you care and support them and are listening and trying to learn and understand the illness and what to do if something goes wrong.”

What do you think? What are your best practices in supporting diabetic family members?

For more great diabetes advice, community, and support, download the free HelpAround app.