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How to Help Your Loved One Cope with Complications

By Coeli Carr

Diabetes is not a simple illness. The condition is associated with cardiovascular problems, including heart attacks and strokes, eye issues and neuropathy, says Stuart Weiss, MD, an endocrinologist in private practice and assistant clinical professor of medicine at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City. If you’re a caregiver for a family member who has complications from diabetes, follow these tips to improve your loved one’s health and well-being.

Provide a healthful diet

Problem: “People with diabetes tend to eat too much, which typically leads to excess weight, high levels of triglycerides and bad cholesterol in the blood,” says Weiss, noting that elevated triglycerides are linked to incidents of cardiovascular disease, heart attacks and strokes. The culprits, in most instances, are items in processed ingredients like white flour; partially hydrogenated products, such as margarine and many baked goods; and saturated fats, as in fatty meats.

Solution: “Diet is the cornerstone of diabetes management, and in many cases, the caregiver is in the best position to oversee it,” he says. Weiss favors having people with diabetes measure their blood sugar levels after eating a meal, in addition to testing when they wake up in the morning. “My patients can see immediately how the meal they've just eaten affected their blood sugar,” says Weiss. “It’s simple cause and effect. If the patient’s normal post meal blood sugar tops 180, it’s a good idea to substitute more healthful foods.”

Promote physical activity

Problem: “Diabetes often causes vision complications, such as cataracts and glaucoma, and problems with blood vessels in the eye that may lead to diabetic retinopathy, the number one cause of blindness in this country,” says Weiss. And poor eyesight—generally combined with being overweight—often raises fears of self-injury in a formal exercise program.

Solution: “In place of too much sitting, any exercise is helpful,” says Weiss, who encourages walking, swimming and bicycling. “Swimming and any exercise in a pool are helpful because the water alleviates pressure on the joints, which can be taxed by excess weight.” Weiss suggests that caregivers schedule times for walking, so that the person with diabetes looks forward to the outing. “It’s important for caregivers to remind their loved ones that to prevent weight gain, food—which is fuel—must be burned off.

“Walking is adequate, especially arm-in-arm with the caregiver,” he says. “Stressful exercise, such as weight lifting or using heavy equipment at a gym, can often be detrimental to the eye by causing already-weak blood vessels to break. He advises patients who’d like to do more or other exercises to consult with an ophthalmologist. “Every person’s capacity is different.”

Encourage socializing

Problem: As many 60% to 70% of people with diabetes suffer from nerve damage, a condition that may necessitate limb amputation and depression. “People with diabetes who are depressed either because of an amputation or excess weight often don’t care for themselves properly, and in a vicious cycle, they tend to splurge on comfort foods to console themselves,” says Weiss. “Often people with diabetes don’t want friends to see them in such poor shape.”  

Solution: “Socializing is one of the most important benefits for those with diabetes who are depressed,” says Weiss, who asks caregivers to provide opportunities for their loved ones to connect with friends, children and grandchildren. You might even suggest that they catch up while taking a walk.

Published March 2012

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