How to Support a Loved One With Diabetes

Today’s article is not for those of us who have diabetes, but for those of you who care about someone with diabetes. I wanted to write something for the families, friends, and caregivers, who often might find themselves unsure of how to support their friend or family member who’s struggling with this disease. I wanted to give some advice on how to be truly helpful, and how to avoid some of the common (honest and well-intentioned) missteps that can drive those of us with diabetes a little nutty sometimes.

It’s not always easy to know what to do or what to say. It’s often the case that the stress of having a loved one in trouble is worse than being in trouble yourself. The same is true sometimes with a chronic condition like diabetes. A partner, friend, or loved one can feel paralyzed, unsure what to say, wanting to help but not knowing enough to really know what to do; stuck watching everything unfold with no power to change it or help it. So, let’s try to change that. We’ll start with a simple crash course on what exactly diabetes IS and IS NOT.


Diabetes IS:

• a chronic disease that comes about because of a combination of genetics and circumstances

• a condition in which the body needs help metabolizing sugar that enters the blood due to a deficiency in the systems meant to get that sugar FROM the blood TO the cells that need it for energy.

• a manageable condition that requires discipline and focus from the person living with it

• a condition that requires the person with it to, as my mother used to say, “manually take over” functions within the body that are automatic and unnoticed by people without diabetes

• a term for several different conditions, including Type 1 diabetes and Type 2 diabetes, which, while sharing some common effects and symptoms, are often treated quite differently and require different regimens from the people managing them

Diabetes IS NOT:

• something you get because you used to “eat too much sugar”

• something you get because “you are too fat”

• a “lifestyle” disease that only happens to people who “don’t take good enough care of themselves”

• a condition that means you can’t live a normal life

• a condition that can be magically reversed through a “positive mental attitude” (particularly when you’re talking about Type 1 — on the list of things to NEVER DO is tell someone with Type 1 diabetes that if he only did XYZ he would be cured tomorrow)

• easy to manage or always predictable.

OK, what can you do with this information? First off, as an “ally,” you can always understand that diabetes is a complex condition and avoid falling into oversimplified clichés like worrying every time you see us eat a cookie. It’s not as simple as “don’t eat sugar.” In fact, it’s just as likely that our blood sugar will go LOW and we’ll NEED some sugar at some point during the day. In fact, holding back from judging our actions is a good rule of thumb. Of course, if we’re ignoring our condition and running constant 200s and 300s, it might be time for a talk. But for most occasions, try to have some trust that we’re taking the appropriate actions and give us the benefit of the doubt. If you’re really not sure about something, ask us about it rather than scolding us.

When we’re struggling, or mad, or upset, it can be tough to know how to respond. Here again, empathy and some kind words are what we need, not judgment. I’ve lived with diabetes for 23 years. It’s made me upset plenty of times. It’s making me upset right now, in fact. All week, I’ve been running into this maddening evening pattern of low, low, low, low followed by a surge into the upper 190s or lower 200s. This isn’t usual for me, and I’m trying to figure it out. But right now, it’s just irritating. If someone were to talk to me right now, a simple “sorry, that sounds obnoxious” would be just about right.

Most of the time, for most of us, we’re feeling OK. And when we’re out and about with you, here’s another tip: Don’t handle us with kid gloves. We’re not made of glass because we have diabetes. Does it make sense to confirm we’ve got some glucose tablets before you go on a hike with us? Yes. That’s a helpful reminder that my wife makes all the time. I’m always grateful for it. But don’t start worrying that having diabetes means we can’t GO on that hike or engage in the same everyday activities the rest of the world does. Diabetes is a manageable condition.

In the end, what we really need from you is love, support, and friendship. If it becomes necessary to voice concerns, make sure you’re well informed, and talk to us. If you’re not sure about something we’re doing, ask us about it; don’t scold us or tell us what choice to make. And remember that diabetes is just a thing we have that we have to manage. It doesn’t stop us from living our lives.

Want to learn more about supporting a loved one with diabetes? Read “What People With Diabetes Wish You Knew” and “Whose Diabetes Is It, Anyway? Dealing With Resistance, Denial, and Unsolicited Advice.”