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?
Sometimes, living with diabetes can seem like a full-time job -- trying to keep up with everything you need to do for proper diabetes care.
"Diabetes is a very time-consuming disease to manage well," says Karmeen Kulkarni, MS, RD, CDE, and former president of health care and education for the American Diabetes Association. "The medication, the food, the physical activity -- you add life in general to that whole picture and it ends up being quite challenging."
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 Pittsburgh 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 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.''
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