Diabetes and the elderly

By: Audrey Miller, MSW, RSW, Nov 19, 2010

How to help an elderly loved one cope with a diagnosis of diabetes

Diabetes is a disease that affects more than two million people in Canada today. With the population aging as it is, and obesity rates rising, this number is only expected to increase. To a caregiver of someone who has been recently diagnosed with a form of diabetes, this can sound daunting.

When a loved one is diagnosed with an acute or chronic disease, things can feel overwhelming. You may ask yourself “what could we have done differently?” or “how are our lives going to change?”

As a caregiver, the first step you can take to help your loved one would be in understanding the disease.

Get informed

Diabetes education is a vital first step. Diabetes is a disease that occurs when the body does not produce or utilize insulin properly. Insulin is what the body uses to change sugars and starches into energy. There are three types of diabetes.

The first is Type I diabetes and accounts for 10 per cent of all cases of diabetes. The cause for this form of diabetes still remains unknown. Type I quite often develops before the age of 30 and can occur when the body's defense system attacks insulin-making cells in error, or when the pancreas is unable to produce insulin at all.

The second form of diabetes is Type II, which develops when the body does not correctly use the insulin it produces or the pancreas does not produce enough insulin. This form of diabetes quite often develops in adulthood and accounts for approximately 90 per cent of all cases of diabetes.

The third is a temporary form of diabetes called gestational diabetes. It can occur in about 3.5 per cent of all pregnancies, involving a greater risk of developing diabetes for both mom and baby.

Finally, prediabetes is the stage at which your blood glucose levels are close to the levels that usually indicate diabetes. Not all individuals who have prediabetes will progress to diabetes, but some do, so it is important to know what factors may impact one’s blood glucose levels to increase the chance that they normalize.

If not treated properly, diabetes can come with some very serious complications such as heart disease, stroke, visual impairments, and kidney disease to name a few. As a caregiver of someone living with diabetes, what can you do to ensure that person lives a long, healthy life?

Get support

Know what resources are available to help you and your loved one. As a caregiver you will also want to understand the disease, as it will require a change in your everyday routine with your loved one. Talk to others who have the disease or are living with someone who has diabetes and keep a positive and realistic outlook.

Your local Canadian Diabetes Association office is one resource that can help educate you on the subject of diabetes. Associations often offer support groups for the person living with diabetes as well as support groups for the caregiver, and a multitude of programs and education in the workplace. Another option would be to check out your local hospital. Hospitals frequently offer programs and information sessions for the person living with diabetes and for the caregiver.

On a personal note, my father was an adult onset diabetic, who died from complications from diabetes at age 69. Unfortunately he came from a family history of diabetes on both sides of his family — who all died at a young age. I think he believed an early death was his fate.

Know your role

Ultimately, individuals living with diabetes must take responsibility for their lifestyle changes in order to live healthy lives. You as the caregiver can only help to make the adjustments easier. If your loved one is not cognitively able, you may play a more significant and vital role in managing your loved one’s diabetes. That role involves ensuring that the person is eating a well-balanced diet low in fat (especially saturated and trans fat), moderate in salt and sugar, with meals based on whole grain foods, vegetables and fruit. You may also be responsible for making sure your loved one is taking the required medications. It might become necessary to hire a nurse to administer any more significant injections or blood glucose testing – and for this you can contact your local Community Care Access Centre.

Lifestyle management

As the caregiver of someone living with diabetes you will want to reduce the stress in both of your lives as much as possible. Staying active and exercising frequently not only benefits your physical health by reducing your blood glucose levels, promoting weight loss and keeping your blood pressure down, but will also benefit your emotional wellbeing by decreasing the daily stress in your lives. Do things you both enjoy and set time aside for yourselves as a method to keep stress levels down and relaxation to a maximum.

Work as a team

A strong, united force will help any battle and when it comes to your health, or the health of a family member/loved one. Your team may consist of:

  • The individual with diabetes
  • You, the caregiver
  • Family physician
  • Dietician
  • Eye doctor
  • Social worker/Psychologist/Psychiatrist/Marriage and family therapist
  • Podiatrist
  • Dentist
  • Exercise physiologist/Physiotherapist/Kinesiologist/Trainer

You can be of tremendous help to your loved one as he or she adjusts to having diabetes and making important lifestyle changes. The real commitment to change, however, must come from the other person.

Audrey Miller, MSW, RSW, CCRC, CCLCP, is the managing director of Elder Caring Inc. She has spent the last 25 years working with disabled individuals and their families, focusing on rehabilitation issues to improve function at home, in the community and at the work place. Elder Caring was created to meet a growing need in the community for a coordinated, professional and interdisciplinary approach to service delivery with a focus on the health and well-being of the older person and their family. She has both a Bachelor’s level and Master’s Degree in Social Work and is registered in the province of Ontario. She is a Geriatric Care Manager, a Canadian Certified Rehabilitation Counsellor and a Canadian Certified Life Care Planner. To learn more, visit www.eldercaring.ca.