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?
You know how to eat and exercise to stay healthy with diabetes. The problem is you don't always do what you know, right? It’s important to recognize the early signs of self-sabotage: procrastination, self-defeating behavior, fear, and perfectionism. If you do, you can redirect yourself long before you've done any harm.
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.''