Did you know that one in three Canadians are living with diabetes or prediabetes? Unfortunately, that number is increasing at an unprecedented race. Research indicates that adults aged 20 years and older face a 50 per cent chance of developing diabetes in their lifetime. A common misconception is that Type 1 diabetes is a result of poorly managed Type 2 diabetes. Nothing could be further from the truth. While Type 2 diabetes (which represents 90 per cent of diabetics) is caused by risk factors, such as obesity, but remediable through diet, exercise and medication, Type 1 diabetes is an incurable auto-immune disease with no known cause that requires daily injections of insulin. Additionally, more than six million Canadians suffer from prediabetes and three to 20 per cent of pregnant women develop gestational diabetes.
Despite these staggering numbers, less than half of all Canadians can identify the warning signs and complications of diabetes. Diabetes has, unbeknownst to many, become a national epidemic, and chances are you or a loved one are affected by this debilitating disease.
To mark National Diabetes Month; World Diabetes Day on November 14; and the 100th anniversary of the lifesaving discovery of insulin at the University of Toronto, we have compiled tips and tricks for interacting with and caring for people with diabetes. It’s true that we often feel helpless and powerless in the face of adversity. Luckily, while you may think that there is nothing you can do to help a diabetic person—there is. Being helpful doesn’t always mean making grand gestures. Seemingly small acts can make a world of difference for diabetics, but it is important to know what is helpful and appreciated—and what is not.
1. Don’t give unsolicited advice or question a diabetic person’s judgement
One person’s diabetes is not the same as another person’s. Diabetes affects each person uniquely and how their body deals with it depends on that person. Managing the disease is not just about diet; the type of diabetes, hormones, sleep, stress, the environment and other medical issues affect the way a person is able to handle diabetes. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. Statements like “should you really be eating this” or “exercise should help” is uninformed and sure to irritate those who live with the disease every day. Unsolicited advice is very frustrating to diabetic people, so it is best to abstain and to leave it to the health care practitioners.
2. Do recognize the signs of a hypoglycemic episode
Diabetics deal with fluctuating blood sugar levels all day long. While high blood sugar (hyperglycemia) requires swift action, low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) can be fatal if not treated immediately. The ability to think clearly is drastically affected when someone goes through a hypoglycemic episode, making it at times difficult for them to realize that their glucose levels are critically low. Recognizing the signs of hypoglycemia can be lifesaving when the diabetic doesn’t catch on. Therefore, warn the person if you notice any of the following so they can take action: confusion, incoherency, nervousness, difficulty speaking, coordination issues, sweaty, shaky or a fruity breath.
3. Do be aware of what to do in case of severe hypoglycemia
Sometimes, a hypoglycemic episode can be so bad that the diabetic person is incapable of ingesting sugar on their own to bring their blood glucose levels back up. This is a medical emergency for which you must treat the diabetic person immediately. If the person is conscious, grab glucose tablets, juice or other carbohydrate (glucose)-heavy food or beverages and help them consume it. If the person is unconscious, call 911, administer glucagon (check their pockets or purse for a glucagon emergency kit) and place them in the recovery position. Do not leave them alone and do not give them food or drinks as these are choking hazards.
4. Do understand that diabetes affects their mood
Fluctuating blood sugar levels affect a person’s mood and at times, they can appear aloof, unengaged or sleepy. When this happens, don’t take it personally. Simply understand that the person is fighting a battle against their own body and give them the time and space to recover.
5. Do take a diabetic’s diet into consideration when inviting them for dinner
What a diabetic person eats depends on their mood and their blood sugar levels in that moment. If they are experiencing a low before a meal, they will add carbohydrates to bring their glucose levels up. In case of a high, they might prefer to eat carb-free. When inviting a diabetic friend or family member, ensure that the ingredients with carbohydrates can be easily removed and replaced by a second serving of vegetables, instead of providing a meal where eating carbohydrates is inevitable, such as pasta, pizza or sushi. As well, ensure you have sugar-free beverages as sodas and alcohol increase glucose levels. By being mindful of their diet, you give diabetic guests a choice and a chance to eat in a manner that will not dramatically impact their blood sugar levels.
6. Don’t mention their diabetes
Every diabetic person has dealt with this issue: while injecting insulin, pricking their finger or checking their glucose levels on their sensor, someone takes notice, walks up to them and asks them if they have diabetes before launching into an unwanted question-and-answer period. While the diabetic person understands that you are coming from a good place, they are simply trying to get through the day without having to detail their medical condition to everybody. Think about it: would you like to be asked to elaborate on your medical situation every time you tend to it? As a non-diabetic person, understand that those afflicted are fighting a daily battle to try to keep glucose levels in range. Being asked about their condition feels like a breach of privacy and is exhausting to diabetics. Allow them to just go about their day.
Diabetics deal with the ramifications of the disease every minute of every day and knowing what (not) to do alleviates the burden they are carrying. Stay informed and ask your loved ones affected by this disease for additional ways you can help them. Remember, everyone’s diabetes is different from another.
While diabetes is one of today’s greatest health threats, being informed helps detect early symptoms and mitigate or avoid getting the disease altogether, except in case of Type 1 diabetes. One way to assess your health risk factors is by taking the Health Risk Assessment on Balance®, the Alberta Blue Cross® online wellness program, a helpful tool for plan members who might be at risk for diabetes. We also have additional resources that are available to everyone. Speak to your doctor if you believe you are at risk and create a plan together to improve your quality of life and keep diabetes away.