How to Support your Diabetic Partner
Experts and people who’ve been there offer tips on how to support a partner with diabetes — without nagging.
When Gerri Weiss’s husband, Michael, learned 22 years ago that he had type 1 diabetes, she faced what she calls one of the toughest challenge of her life: how to support her husband through a disease that often overwhelmed both of them.
With 21 million Americans now diagnosed with diabetes, Weiss has hardly been alone in her struggle. What are the best ways to support a spouse with diabetes?
Two of the best tips you can use at restaurants are to watch the salt and cut the portions. Experts recommend that people with diabetes get only 1,500 milligrams of sodium daily. That’s less than a teaspoon. These course-by-course tips will help: Appetizers Choose fresh fruit or vegetables. Avoid soups and broths. Stay away from bread and rolls with salty, buttery crusts. Salads Select fresh
First, recognize that diabetes permeates daily life.
”When Mike was diagnosed, he kept thinking this disease had just happened to him, when, in fact, it had happened to our whole family,” Weiss says.
The couple had two young children. ”All of a sudden, we had to eat meals at a certain time, and we had a busy life,” Weiss says. “And we had to be aware that Daddy had mood swings sometimes.”
It’s also frightening to think of a loved one developing diabetes-related complications from poorly controlled blood sugar, such as blindness, amputation, and kidney failure. When a partner with diabetes doesn’t seem serious about managing the disease, a spouse may feel frustrated, even panicked.
But browbeating or criticizing usually backfires, says Weiss, who is director of organizational affairs at the University of Pittsburg Diabetes Institute. Her husband, Michael Weiss, chairs the American Diabetes Association’s national board of directors.
Instead, as Weiss learned, there are better ways to create a healthy partnership. She and other experts offered WebMD these pointers for those trying to support a spouse with diabetes.
Diabetes Support Tip No. 1: Offer Help, but Don’t Be the Diabetes Police
At first, when Weiss caught her husband sneaking junk food, she reminded him that it was off-limits. She asked him constantly about his blood sugar levels. ”It took some time before I realized that diabetes had not just changed our lifestyle, it had changed me,” Weiss says. ”I became a nagging spouse.”
While it’s tempting to hover, let your spouse decide what kind of help is welcome, Weiss says. Some people with diabetes will allow spouses ”nagging rights.” Others won’t.
It’s also unrealistic to expect a spouse with diabetes to stay on top of the disease at all times. Says Weiss: ”For Mike, it’s 24-7. He can’t take a break from this disease — ever. And I can.”
To cope, ”I think it’s critical to talk with your spouse about what kind of diabetes support he or she needs from you — and what you need from your spouse that will help you live with diabetes,” Weiss says.
That may mean compromise. For example, the Weisses struggled over Michael’s 6-10 daily blood glucose checks. She wanted to know the exact numbers. He resented the intrusion.
The couple finally struck a balance. ”I needed to know that he was OK. I was allowed to ask that, but I wasn’t allowed to ask what his numbers were,” she says. When to reveal a reading? His choice alone.
Martha Funnell, MS, RN, CDE, a clinical nurse specialist at the Michigan Diabetes and Research Training Center, agrees with the approach. ”As much as you love your spouse, ultimately, diabetes belongs to them.”
Diabetes Support Tip No. 2: Adopt Healthy Habits for the Whole Household
Weiss started paying more attention to portion control and healthier meals. The whole family started to eat what Michael ate so that he wouldn’t feel different. Weiss also bought diabetes cookbooks to support their new way of eating.
Diabetes cooking classes can be helpful, too. But for some families, these steps aren’t practical, Funnell says.
”Everybody wants cookbooks, but in reality, most people cook the same seven meals over and over again,” she says. In that case, a dietitian can give advice on how to adapt familiar recipes into healthier versions. He or she can also teach about proper serving sizes.
Tony Price, an American Diabetes Association spokesman in California who has type 1 diabetes, says his wife, Connie Cox Price, helps him to count carbohydrates at restaurants. She also scours the menu for hidden ingredients, such as plum sauce in Chinese food, that can raise glucose levels. ”Those things just sneak up on you,” she says.
Another tip: Don’t tempt your spouse with forbidden foods, Funnell says. ”Don’t sit there and eat three gallons of ice cream in front of them and yell at them for eating the same thing.”
Don’t even bring junk food into the home, Weiss adds.
Diabetes Support Tip No. 3: Help Make Time for Exercise
”One of the biggest issues about exercise is time,” Funnell says. ”To nag somebody to exercise –but not offer to do those things that free them up to exercise — doesn’t work.”
A husband whose wife has diabetes can help her to carve out exercise time by running extra errands, watching the children, or picking them up from day care so she can hit the gym after work. Or he could offer to exercise with her to boost motivation.
Or do what the Prices do: Make exercise a priority. On weekends, they schedule it before any other events.
Diabetes Support Tip No. 4: Educate Yourself
Learn as much as you can about diabetes, Weiss says. Knowledge is crucial if your spouse has severe hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar, which can lead to seizures, coma, or even death.
”It’s very frightening for family members and often for the person with diabetes,” Funnell says. ”Know what to do because that helps you to stay less panicked.” Learn how to give glucose tablets, orange juice, or regular soda to raise blood sugar.
When Weiss goes out with her husband, she keeps glucose tablets with her, especially after he once passed out at a restaurant from hypoglycemia. Call 911 if a partner with diabetes loses consciousness, Funnell says.
Diabetes Support Tip No. 5: Be Prepared for Mood Swings
Low blood sugar can cause those with diabetes, especially if they’re on insulin, to feel nervous, weak, confused, and irritable. Mood swings are common.
”Know that as the spouse, you will probably become the target of those swings. But understand that it’s not personal,” Weiss says.
But if mood swings become more frequent or intense, talk to your spouse about seeking counseling to look for underlying psychological distress, she adds.
Diabetes Support Tip No. 6. If Sexual Problems Arise, Talk About It
Don’t ignore the damage diabetes can do to sexual relationships, Funnell says. Between 35% and 50% of men with diabetes struggle with erectile dysfunction, according to the National Institutes of Health. Wives have told Funnell, ”’All of a sudden, he doesn’t kiss me anymore, he doesn’t hold my hand,’ and they miss that. A lot of them say they miss that more than the actual sexual activity.”
She cautions women: ”It’s not personal. It doesn’t happen because you’re no longer attractive. It’s not a rejection of you. At the same time, it’s one of the most devastating things in diabetes that can happen for men.”
For women with diabetes, increased vaginal dryness, discomfort during intercourse, and vaginal infections can put a damper on sex, Funnell says. So can fatigue. ”They’re just worn out,” she says. ”They don’t feel very sexy. They’re managing diabetes. And if their blood sugar is high, they don’t have the energy.”
Also, research shows that women with diabetes believe they receive less spousal support than men with diabetes, Funnell says. That can breed resentment. ”For women, a lot of desire and satisfaction come from the mental romance of it all.”
When diabetes interferes with physical closeness, couples need to discuss it, Funnell says. Counseling may help. They should also consult a doctor about treatments for erectile dysfunction, vaginal dryness, low libido, and other medical problems.