Caring for a loved one with diabetes

Diabetes is a condition that is a lifelong concern for everyone involved. For carers, the main concern is that their loved ones stay as healthy and happy as possible.

Diabetes is a disease that has no cure, but you can take steps to manage your loved one’s condition. For carers, a huge concern is ensuring that their loved ones stay as healthy as possible.

Diabetes is a common long-term health condition that causes a person’s blood glucose (sugar) levels to be too high. It is estimated that around 3.5 million people in the UK are now living with the disease. While it’s a condition that many can handle on their own, diabetes can pose a challenge for some people – particularly those who require care and support from their friends and family. There are two primary types of diabetes – type 1 and type 2. Despite being somewhat similar, they are quite different conditions. In fact, type 2 diabetes is the far more prevalent of the two – with it being the condition accounting for 90% of all diabetes cases in the UK.

Irrespective of whether the person is dealing with type 1 or type 2 diabetes, the condition can be managed with the proper medication, care and support. Knowing the difference and what you can do to help support your loved one is paramount in ensuring that they continue to be as healthy as they possibly can be.

Type 1 diabetes explained

Type 1 diabetes is a lifelong condition, that occurs when the body is unable to produce a hormone called insulin. Insulin regulates the amount of glucose in the blood. Insulin is produced by the pancreas and is essential for a fully functioning and healthy body. The pancreas may stop producing insulin when the immune system attacks and destroys insulin-producing cells. Without enough insulin, the body can no longer allow glucose from food and drink to pass into the body’s cells, leading to high levels of blood sugar. More and more glucose will build up in the bloodstream, causing a wide range of side effects. People with type 1 diabetes will, therefore, need to get insulin from elsewhere.

The condition is managed by either insulin injections or insulin pumps, as well as good management of the person’s diet. Type 1 diabetes has no cure and treatment is focused on lifestyle management.

Risk factors

There are a number of risk factors that can cause someone to have a higher chance of developing type 1 diabetes. These include:

  • Age: Type 1 often develops in children or young adults. Usually, diagnosis is achieved when a person is younger than 14 years old; however, it can be diagnosed at any age. This is often due to the condition being missed. Type 1 that develops in later life is rare.
  • A family history: People with parents or siblings who live with type 1 diabetes are at a slightly increased risk of also developing type 1 diabetes. This risk is further increased if both parents also have type 1.
  • Genetic risk: A person having certain genes may leave them with an increased risk of developing type 1 diabetes.

Complications of Type 1 diabetes

Sometimes type 1 diabetes can cause complications that affect major organs in the body. Left unchecked or poorly managed it can eventually affect the heart and kidneys, cause nerve damage and increase the risk of cataracts and glaucoma in the eyes. However, proper management of blood sugar levels and treatment can help lower and prevent complications.

Type 2 diabetes explained

Much like type 1 diabetes, type 2 diabetes occurs when the levels of glucose in the blood get too high. A person who has type 1 diabetes cannot produce insulin, but if you have type 2 diabetes, the insulin your pancreas makes either isn’t enough or doesn’t work properly. For those with type 2 diabetes, this process can eventually lead to the pancreas getting tired out, causing their bodies to produce increasingly less insulin and, as such, leading to higher blood sugar levels. Much like type 1, the body then struggles with a build-up of glucose in the bloodstream.

Type 2 diabetes is often associated with being overweight or obese with a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or more. Type 2 diabetes usually develops later in life, however, there has been a rise of type 2 diabetes in children, adolescents and young adults. This has been linked to poor diet and childhood obesity.

The disease often begins after going through a stage known as pre-diabetes. The condition can be potentially reversed during this period. However, if the condition moves to full-blown type 2 diabetes, it is managed with either oral medication or, if this isn’t effective, insulin injections; as well as lifestyle changes.

Some people are able to stop taking medication, effectively putting their type 2 diabetes into remission. This is where the body’s blood sugar levels have returned to a normal. Often, remission is nearer to the initial diagnosis and strongly linked to weight loss and effective diet management. Remission does not necessarily mean cured and if improperly managed, type 2 diabetes can come back. Even if remission cannot be reached, it is still advisable for sufferers to lose some extra weight, as this can prevent other complications and conditions from worsening, or occurring at all.

Risk factors

As with type 1 diabetes, there are a variety of risk factors that can contribute to someone having a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes. However, they are very different, and many are preventable. They can be split into two categories: unavoidable and preventable.

Unavoidable risk factors include:

  • Age: Those who are over the age of 45 are most at risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
  • Family history: A person is approximately two to six times more likely to develop diabetes if they have parents, siblings or children with the disease.
  • Race: People of South Asian, Black African, Africa-Caribbean, Latin, Hispanic or Pacific Islander descent are more at risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Type 2 diabetes is up to six times more common in those of South Asian descent.
  • Mental health: It’s known that people who suffer from depression are more at risk of developing type 2 diabetes. This may be due to poor lifestyle decisions, such as unhealthy eating, lack of exercise and weight gain.
  • Pregnancy: People who give birth to a baby that is over 9lbs are more at risk of developing diabetes. Additionally, the risk also increases if a person has a history of gestational diabetes (occurring during pregnancy).
  • Medical conditions: If a person has polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) or acanthosis nigricans (thick, dark velvet-like skin often around the neck or armpits), they are more at risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

Preventable risk factors include:

  • High blood pressure: Those with a blood pressure of 140/90 millimetres of mercury are at an increased risk. If blood pressure levels can be controlled and managed, the chances of developing type 2 can be lessened.
  • Being inactive: Those who live a sedentary lifestyle are most at risk of developing type 2. Exercise and trying to be more active can help to reduce this risk.
  • Weight: Being overweight or obese – especially those with excessive weight in the midriff – can increase the risk of developing type 2. This is due to increased fatty tissue causing cells to become resistant to insulin. Women have a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes if their waist measures 80 cm (31.5 inches) or more.
  • Cholesterol: People with poor levels of healthy cholesterol or HDL (high-density lipoprotein) have an increased risk.
  • Smoking: As well as increasing the risk of cancer or heart disease, smoking is also linked with a higher risk of type 2 diabetes. Stopping smoking can help to alleviate these risks.
  • Other conditions: People who have had strokes, a heart/blood vessel disease or high levels of triglycerides fats are also at risk.

Many of these risk factors can be mitigated, reduced or even eliminated if lifestyle factors are adjusted. Monitoring what is consumed in a person’s diet and the levels of activity and exercise they take can minimise risk.

Signs and symptoms of diabetes

The symptoms of both type 1 and type 2 diabetes are very similar. These symptoms can include:

  • feeling exhausted, fatigued or very tired a lot of the time
  • persistent thirst
  • excessive peeing, particularly at night (known as nocturia) – this is when your body attempts to rid glucose via the kidneys
  • numbness in the tips of fingers or toes
  • grazes or cuts that don’t heal quickly, especially on the feet
  • unexpected weight loss
  • blurry eyesight
  • recurring thrush (often manifesting as a genital rash)
  • a constant feeling of hunger
  • weakness
  • mood changes (such as being irritable)

Spotting type 1 diabetes signs and symptoms in children can be difficult, as its often mistaken for other conditions. Things to look out for are; bed-wetting in children who do not wet the bed, mood changes, increased thirst and sudden and unintended weight-loss.

However, it’s worth noting that some people who are going through pre-diabetes or type 2 diabetes can exhibit absolutely none of these symptoms. For this reason, it can sometimes take up to ten years for a type 2 diagnosis to be finalised.

How to care for a person with diabetes

If you are caring for a person living with diabetes, you also have to manage a person’s diabetes. Irrespective of whether it is type 1 or type 2, both types of diabetes require proper planning to manage the diseases effectively. One of the most important things is to keep blood sugar levels at an optimal level.

Other than medication, one of the ways this is achieved is by encouraging a person to eat as healthily as possible. This includes minimising intake of sugary drinks and snacks, as well as avoiding lots of processed foods. While there is not an exact diet to follow per se, foods such as fruit, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, low-fat dairy and healthy fats should be preferred. This will not only help to manage the condition but will give lots of health boosts that can help reduce the effects or onset of other conditions.

Ensuring that the person gets exercise or stays active is also an important part of caring for a person with diabetes. Regular exercise, and any subsequent weight loss (arising from a good combination of diet and exercise) can lower blood sugar levels. If it’s difficult for the person you are caring for to exercise, try and encourage them to do what they can – even if it’s just a walk or some limited physical activity.

In order to check that any exercise, activity or diet changes are having an effect on controlling blood sugar, these levels need to be regularly monitored. If blood sugar levels get too low, this can cause a ‘hypo’ (also known as hypoglycaemia) – a dangerous stage that can cause all sorts of side effects. This is an instance where a person with diabetes should have a sugary snack or drink to help raise blood sugar levels. Knowing how to recognise low blood sugar or hypo is essential and early symptoms can include:

  • hunger
  • shakiness and dizziness
  • palpitations and sweating
  • tiredness
  • pale skin
  • anxiety and irritability
  • a tingling sensation around the mouth
  • in more severe cases, it can progress to include confusion, blurred vision, seizures and loss of consciousness.

Conversely, hyperglycaemia is when blood sugar levels are too high, and this should be avoided too. This can occur when a person living with diabetes has overeaten, has ineffectively administered diabetes medication or has been unwell. Symptoms can be somewhat similar to a hypo, such as excessive thirst and urination, as well as increased hunger.

Different people will also have different needs. For example, if your loved one is elderly, they may also be living with other conditions such as retinopathy, neuropathy, dementia or arthritis. This means you may have to be more observant of any symptoms that could arise as a result of a ‘hypo’ or high blood sugar, as they may not be able to identify it as such. Making sure they regularly monitor their blood sugar levels and eat healthy balanced meals can make all the difference for a person with diabetes. Children with diabetes may also require a lot of vigilance to ensure that they are sticking to scheduled meals.

Get support from Better Healthcare

If your loved one is dealing with diabetes and requires care, you may find that life can become a bit overwhelming or stressful, especially if they are dealing with other conditions as well. Supporting someone who has to remain vigilant with their health, food and activity levels can be extremely tiring. As such, many carers will take respite to get a break from the demands of being a carer for their loved one.

At Better Healthcare Services, we offer respite care in such events. Whether it is live-in care or home visits, our team of professional carers are well equipped to help support people who are living with a variety of different conditions – including diabetes. This can include regularly checking blood sugar levels, helping to prepare nutritional meals, monitoring intake of any snacks or drinks, ensuring that medication is taken and keeping our clients physically active.

However, we don’t just offer our services to support people who are taking respite; we offer this service at all times. If you are struggling to care for your loved one, whether it’s all the time or just sometimes, we can to offer as little or as much support as you need. Our excellent live-in and home care options are tailored to meet the needs of the individual in the comfort of their own home.

For more information on how our team can help, give us a call on 0800 668 1234 or get in touch with one of our local Better Healthcare offices today.

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