One of my friends called me the other day, deeply frustrated and scared. Both of her parents have recently been diagnosed with diabetes and she desperately wanted to understand how to help them manage their diabetes and thrive until old age.

How to support a loved one newly diagnosed with diabetes

Her frustration was related to something that seems to be fairly common; her parents’ perceived unwillingness to make the lifestyle changes their doctor had prescribed. I’m very glad she chose to call me and I think some of the things we discuss are worth sharing here on Diabetes Strong.

I think it’s important to understand that people’s unwillingness to make lifestyle changes is based on the normal resistance to change that we all tend to have and isn’t because they “don’t care”. To make changes, they need to understand the situation, feel a sense of urgency, and have a clear idea about how making these changes will benefit them. This is what you can help them with, assuming that you have a solid knowledge of diabetes yourself.

The first thing you have to do if you want to help a loved one who has been diagnosed with diabetes is, therefore, to make sure you know what you are talking about. Spend a little time in the “recently diagnosed” section of the American Diabetes Association’s website and learn the basics.

What else can you do to support a loved one newly diagnosed with diabetes?

What you can do to help your loved ones depends a lot on their personalities, your relationship with them, and their age, but there are certain that will almost always be helpful.

Help them understand the situation

Your loved ones might not completely understand what “having diabetes” means and not knowing can be very scary. When I was diagnosed, I didn’t know anything about diabetes.

Unfortunately, my doctor at that time didn’t do a good job of explaining it to me. He just diagnosed me, referred me to a specialist, and sent me home. That drive home was awful. I pretty much thought I had been handed a death sentence and didn’t know what to do. That’s why talking to someone they know and trust can be so helpful to your loved ones.

I suggest you take the time necessary to talk through some of the fears and concerns your loved ones might have. Just talking about it and getting the facts out there may help defuse their fear and make the situation seem more manageable.

The key points you want your loved ones to understand are:

  1. They can live a normal life with diabetes. If they learn to manage their diabetes, it won’t hold them back from doing all the things they love.
  2. Managing their diabetes can’t wait. Just because they feel fine now, doesn’t mean that making the necessary lifestyle changes isn’t urgent.
  3. They are not alone. There are millions of other people with diabetes out there. They can find countless forums and support groups online where they can meet other people with diabetes, ask questions, and get support. Most large cities also have local diabetes associations they can contact.

Help them understand that making changes now is necessary

In my friend’s case, her parents had been diagnosed with prediabetes and Type 2 diabetes respectively. Those diseases aren’t like Type 1 diabetes where you have an acute need for insulin right away, and many people don’t “feel” sick at first. So your loved ones may not feel any urgency to do something about it.

It’s interesting how we humans can get so used to feeling a certain way that it becomes the norm. Before my diabetes diagnosis, I was extremely tired all the time, and that became my daily reality. It was only after I began treatment that I realized how “sick” I had actually felt.

I suggest that you talk about some of the symptoms your loved ones experience and try to have an objective chat about what diabetes is and how it can impact/hurt the body in the short and long run. Never try to scare them by listing all the horrible things that can happen, but instead, tell them that you love them and want them to be healthy and happy for a long time to come.

Support them without getting frustrated

Whether you are young or older, change can be difficult. Changing habits and routines is not “just” something you do; it requires a lot of effort. When you then add in diabetes, this thing you didn’t ask for, as the reason you have to make changes, the chain might just jump off.

As for my friend, she was frustrated with how little exercise her mom had incorporated into her life after her diagnosis. Basically, she didn’t think it was nearly enough.

That’s where I think she had to take a step back and see it from her mom’s perspective. Her mom is in her 70’ies and she has never been very active and had no desire to. After the diagnosis, she incorporated walks around her block. That’s actually huge in my opinion.

It’s huge because it’s a start and a step in the right direction. You can’t and shouldn’t expect that everybody will be able to completely redesign their lives after a diabetes diagnosis. I suggest you support and help your loved ones (if they need help) prioritize what changes need to be made first. Of course, that will depend on the individual and which kind of treatment regime they have been prescribed.

Take it one step at a time. Keep supporting in a gentle way and your loved ones will most likely continue making progress. NEVER get angry. They are adults who are entitled to make their own decisions.

On the American Diabetes Association’s web page, you can find guides for how to support a newly diagnosed loved one, and I really liked one of their headlines: “Encourage Self-Care, but Don’t Be a Pest”.

For although it’s important to gently nudge a parent, uncle, or other loved one to manage their diabetes it’s ultimately their choice. I find that we often pass our own worries onto the loved one we are trying to look after, and in my opinion, that’s not their worries to carry.

So be supportive, ensure that your loved ones understand why you encourage them to make changes, and sometimes just be quiet and listen.

For a different perspective on supporting a loved one with diabetes, you can read Tobias’ post about how he supports me (he is amazing at it!)