Helping a Family Member Who Has Diabetes

What is diabetes?

You've probably heard of diabetes, but you might not know exactly what it is. Diabetes is a disease that occurs when a person's body doesn't make enough insulin or can't use insulin properly. Insulin is a hormone that allows the body to use sugar for energy.

There are 2 types of diabetes. Type 1 occurs when the body doesn't produce any insulin. It most often occurs in children. People with type 2 diabetes either don't produce insulin or their cells ignore their insulin. Nearly 95% of people with diabetes have type 2.

Why does a person with diabetes need help?

It isn't easy for people to hear that they have diabetes. Diabetes is a problem that doesn't go away. It has to be taken care of every day. People with diabetes have to make some important changes in their lives. To stay healthy, they have to learn how to monitor and control their blood sugar levels. People who don't control their blood sugar levels can develop serious health problems, such as blindness, nerve damage and kidney failure. This handout will tell you about ways to help your loved one who has diabetes.

How can I help my relative who has diabetes?

First, learn all you can about diabetes. The more you know, the more you can help. Encourage your relative to learn about diabetes, too.

Second, be sympathetic. It can be scary at first for people to find out they have diabetes. Your relative may be frustrated with the changes he or she has to make. Tell your relative that you understand how he or she feels. But don't let your relative use these feelings as an excuse for not taking care of his or her diabetes.

How can I help my relative make healthy changes?

If you eat meals together, eat the same foods your relative eats. Avoid buying foods he or she isn't supposed to eat. People with diabetes should generally follow the same advice for healthy eating that everyone else should follow: Eat less fat and fewer sugary foods. Instead, choose a variety of fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats and fish.

Encourage exercise. You might even want to exercise together. Walking, jogging, bicycling, swimming and dancing are all good activities that will help both of you get enough exercise. Your relative should talk to his or her doctor to find out what kind of exercise to try.

What else can I do?

Learn how to recognize signs of problems. Learn the symptoms of a high blood sugar level (called hyperglycemia) and a low blood sugar level (called hypoglycemia). Understand that when your relative is very cranky or has a bad temper, his or her blood sugar level may be too high or too low. Rather than arguing, encourage your relative to check the blood sugar level and take steps to correct the problem.

High blood sugar

This often happens when the person with diabetes has eaten too much, has too little insulin in his or her body, or is under a lot of stress. Be alert for these signs in your relative:

  • Frequent need to urinate
  • Drowsiness
  • Nausea
  • Extreme thirst or hunger
  • Blurred vision

Low blood sugar

This often happens when the person with diabetes has not eaten very much, has too much insulin in his or her body, or has exercised beyond his or her limits. Be alert for these signs in your relative:

  • Shaking
  • Fast heartbeat
  • Sweating
  • Anxiety
  • Dizziness
  • Extreme hunger
  • Weakness and tiredness
  • Irritability

Be patient and stick with it!

Learning how to live with diabetes takes time. Your relative will have good days and bad days. Times of stress may be the hardest. When people with diabetes are under stress, they may have more trouble controlling their blood sugar level. When this happens, try to help the person keep things in perspective and get back on track. Provide reminders to eat a healthy diet and exercise. If the person is feeling frustrated and angry, encourage him or her to have a positive attitude that focuses on solving problems.

More Information

For more information talk to your doctor.

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Written by editorial staff.

This handout was developed by the American Academy of Family Physicians in cooperation with the American Diabetes Association.

Reviewed/Updated: 11/06
Created: 03/99