Caring for an older adult with diabetes may feel like a lot to take on. Caregiving can be challenging at times because what seems best for your loved one may not be what they want. You may worry about invading your loved one's privacy or free will. There's also the stress of learning how to manage diabetes and often other health problems. No less important, you need good health and balance in your own life.
How can you be a good caregiver and take care of yourself? First, team up with your loved one and their doctor. And don't try to do it all.
Learning the art of caregiving
As a caregiver, you likely have run into some problems when offering help. For example, the more you try to change how someone eats, the less agreement you get.
Stop and think a moment. When you're in need, how does it feel to accept help from another person? Do you feel relief, or gratitude? Maybe something else? How does it feel when you and your helper don't agree? No one likes to be told what to do, right?
That's why caregiving is an art. At its best, it's an other-centered way of thinking, asking, listening, and responding. That can mean:
- Doing your best to see things from your loved one's point of view.
- Asking questions like "What do you need help with?" and "How do you like to do this?"
- Offering new ideas gently, such as saying "Let's try to get out for a walk today" or "Would you like to try yoga with me?" instead of "You need to get some exercise."
A main goal of caregiving is to help your loved one have the best quality of life possible. To learn what that means for your loved one, try asking questions like:
- "What do you consider a good day? What can we do to help you have more of them?"
- "What are you looking forward to doing in the next few months? How can we keep your health on track with those plans?"
- "What part of your medical care is hardest for you right now? What else about your health is hard for you? How can you and I make that easier on you? Is there something your doctor can help with?"
Help and support in any way you can, based on your time and ability. If there are critical needs that you can't meet, talk about them with your loved one. Think about having more than one caregiver, or maybe a home health aide.
Teaming up with the doctor
Here are some ways to help your loved one team up with his or her doctor to get the best care.
- Help your loved one work with the doctor.
During doctor visits, you can help your loved one to:
- Take an active part in each appointment. Encourage your loved one to ask questions and tell the doctor if following the prescribed treatment will be hard to do.
- Ask for care instructions, such as written information or links to videos and websites.
- Make follow-up appointments.
- Find out when to call the doctor if your loved one is having problems.
- Act as a go-between, if needed.
Depending on how well your loved one can think, speak, and remember, you may be able to play a go-between role. Try asking your loved one guiding questions in front of the doctor, such as, "Do you understand this information? What do you think of that idea?"
- Support shared decision making.
The later years of life are an ideal time for the doctor and your loved one to share in medical decisions. Together, they can decide what to treat and how to treat it, based on your loved one's health and preferences.
If you see a need, help your loved one think through medical decisions such as:
- What medical care is most likely to improve or protect the quality of your life?
- Are there treatments or tests that make your daily life harder? If so, how do they balance against the health benefits they offer you?
- What type of pain relief do you prefer?
Helping them make good food choices
It's important to understand what "eating smart" with diabetes means. It doesn't mean "no sugar" or only special diabetic foods. Instead, smart eating means:
- Spreading snacks and small meals throughout the day.
- Eating a mix of carbs, fat, and protein for each snack and meal.
You can use food to prevent big jumps and drops in your loved one's blood sugar. For example, eating only noodles makes blood sugar jump up, and then drop. It's because of the simple carbs. But eating noodles with some protein and fat, such as cheese, might help slow down the jump in blood sugar.
When a loved one with diabetes isn't eating well, it's easy to take on the role of "food police." The problem is that no one likes to be told how to eat. If you are struggling with this challenge, try to shift your approach. Here's an example.
- Think about a food that your loved one really enjoys. This might be a sweet snack at bedtime.
- Rather than saying "no" to this favorite food, think about helping downsize the portion. For example, for someone who loves a big bowl full of ice cream, fill a smaller bowl.
Taking care of yourself
Taking care of yourself is your most important step as a caregiver. Caregiving can be stressful, even in the best of situations. Here are some important things you need to find time to do—just for yourself.
- Take a class on caregiving.
You will meet other caregivers and learn new ways to deal with challenging situations. To find classes in your area, contact the Family Caregiver Alliance (www.caregiver.org).
- Get some exercise.
You may feel better and sleep better if you exercise. Experts say to aim for at least 2½ hours of moderate activity a week.1
- Eat healthy meals and snacks.
When you are busy giving care, it may seem easier to eat fast food than to prepare healthy meals. But healthy meals are easy to prepare, and healthy eating will give you more energy to carry you through each day.
- Get enough sleep.
If you aren't getting enough sleep at night, take a nap during the day. Plan to get at least one full night's rest each week.
- Make time for an activity you enjoy.
For example, make time to read, listen to music, paint, do crafts, or play an instrument—even if you can only do it for a few minutes a day. If you like to go to church activities or take classes, ask a friend or family member to stay with your loved one for an hour or two once or twice a week so you can do those things.
- Get regular medical checkups.
This includes dental checkups. Even if you have always been healthy, you need to stay healthy. Know about the signs of depression, and watch for them not only in the person you are caring for but also in yourself. If you have feelings of lingering sadness or hopelessness, talk with your doctor.
- Get the support you need.
Helping a loved one with health problems can be emotionally difficult. If you are having trouble coping with your feelings, seek advice and counseling from family members, trained mental health professionals, or spiritual advisors.
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2018). Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, 2nd ed. https://health.gov/paguidelines/second-edition. Accessed July 9, 2018.
Current as of: June 16, 2022
Author: Healthwise Staff
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine
Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine
David C.W. Lau MD, PhD, FRCPC - Endocrinology