People with diabetes sometimes have a separate condition that keeps them from taking control of their health. It’s called pride. Martha Lee Palotta, a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator in Metairie, Louisiana, has seen this countless times over the years. “Many people think asking for help is a sign of weakness,” she says. “But if a person is not willing to get the help they need, they might just as well be living in the 1890s.”
If you have diabetes, you have everything to gain by stepping into the modern age of medicine. Unlike patients with diabetes in decades past, you can manage your blood sugar, avoid serious complications, and lead a long, healthy, and active life — but you can’t do it alone. You’ll need to work carefully with your doctor or diabetes educator to learn everything you can about your condition, and you’ll have to count on friends and family for support. In short, you’ll have to master the fine art of asking for help.
Getting the right doctor
Half the battle is finding the right person to ask. “People with diabetes have to be connected with someone who will listen to them,” Palotta says. A good doctor can be your best ally, but you need to form a partnership. If your physician is too busy or too distracted to answer your questions, consider scheduling a heart-to-heart talk. If things don’t improve, you may have to find a new doctor. You should also consider asking for a referral to a certified diabetes educator. Palotta sees her clients for two hours at a time, giving them an opportunity to ask questions about every aspect of their disease.
Palotta and other diabetes educators are trained to be nosy. They’ll ask about everything from diet to sexual function, and they’ll do what they can to make life better for their patients. In return, they ask for honesty. “Patients have to tell me the way it is, not what I want to hear,” she says. “I base my recommendations on what they tell me. If their blood sugar is high and they haven’t been eating too many carbohydrates, we have a medication problem. But if they’ve really been eating Krispy Kreme donuts (or if they are not taking the medications they’ve already been prescribed correctly), then we’re changing their medication for no reason.”
It also pays to be prepared. Palotta encourages patients to read up on the disease and come to each session with a written list of questions. Patients who understand their condition are more likely to get the help they need, she says. For instance, a young man who realizes diabetes can cause erectile dysfunction is much more likely to mention the problem to his doctor.
According to a study published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, people with diabetes who report having good communication with their doctors turn out to have better health outcomes than those that don’t. In addition to professional guidance, you’ll need plenty of support at home. According to the Joslin Diabetes Center, patients who have a caring network of family and friends are much more likely to take control of their diabetes. If the people around you aren’t making your life easier, they may just need a little prodding in the right direction. You can start by educating them about the disease. They may have some misconceptions — for instance, people with diabetes can never eat sugar — that get in the way. Just as important, you have to tell them what kind of support you need.
“I tell my patients all the time, ‘We are not mind readers. Your spouse is not a mind reader. You have to ask for what you want,'” Palotta says. Do you want help planning meals and keeping track of blood sugar, or do you just want a little encouragement and understanding? Once your loved ones have some guidance, they could become your most valuable resource.
When asking for help at home, a little politeness will get you everywhere, Palotta says. “A husband might say to his wife, ‘It would mean a lot to me if you would cook smaller portions,'” she says. Better still, volunteer to pitch in with buying groceries and cooking. A wife might say, “Please help clean up the kitchen so I have time to exercise.” Whatever the request, the right approach can make all of the difference, she says.
Finally, if you’re having trouble finding the support at home, see if you can find other diabetes patients who can exercise with you and share their support. Members of diabetes support groups sometimes volunteer to become exercise buddies. They can also lend a sympathetic ear about problems keeping up with the right diet and exercise plan.
Diabetes is a complex disease. You’re in charge of your own health, but you’ll need help. Fortunately, there’s plenty of advice, guidance, and support out there — all you have to do is ask.
Interview with Martha Lee Palotta, RD, CDE.
Joslin Diabetes Center. How do I get support from family and friends?
Piette, JD, Schillinger D, Potter MB, and Heisler M. “Dimensions of patient-provider communications and diabetes self-care in an ethically diverse population. Journal of General Internal Medicine. Vol. 18 (8):624-33.