Diabetes has become one of the most prevalent diseases in the U.S.—nearly 30 million Americans have it. Older adults are especially at risk. As we age, the risk of type 2 diabetes rises, and, as a result, about one in four Americans over the age of 60 has diabetes.
Whether you have a parent who was recently diagnosed with diabetes, or you want to learn how you can prevent it in him or her (as well as yourself), read our FAQ for helpful information on diabetes, including how to talk to an elderly parent who has been diagnosed.
What is diabetes?
In general, diabetes occurs when your pancreas doesn’t make enough of the hormone insulin or the insulin produced doesn’t function properly. Insulin helps the glucose (aka sugar) from your food get into your cells, providing them with energy. If this doesn’t happen, sugar builds up in your bloodstream, resulting in diabetes, which occurs in a few different forms:
- Prediabetes refers to the condition where blood sugar is high, but not high enough to indicate diabetes. People with prediabetes risk developing type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and stroke, but with healthy weight loss and exercise, they can avoid this.
- Type 1 diabetes sometimes is referred to as juvenile diabetes because it occurs most often in young people. With this type, which affects five to 10 percent of all diabetics, your immune system attacks or destroys insulin-producing cells, resulting in a shortage of insulin.
- Type 2 diabetes develops most frequently in middle-aged and older people. It arises from insulin resistance, a condition where fat, muscle, and liver cells do not use insulin to bring glucose into the body’s cells. As a result, the pancreas must produce more and more insulin, but can’t keep up.
- Gestational diabetes affects expecting mothers and their babies. It often goes away after birth, but women who have had it and their babies are more likely to develop diabetes later in life.
What are some common diabetes symptoms?
Ask your parent if they regularly experience any of the following:
- Frequent urination
- Blurred vision
- Tingling sensation in hands and feet
- Unusually intense fatigue
- Hunger and/or thirst that can’t be sated
- Cuts or bruises that are slow to heal
- Weight loss (without trying)
Some diabetics exhibit none of these symptoms, so it’s important to help your parent keep annual checkups with his or her doctor to check fasting blood glucose levels, especially after age 45.
How can you prevent diabetes?
Help your parent make healthy lifestyle changes to help prevent type 2 diabetes. This includes maintaining a healthy weight, following a well-rounded diet and exercise routine, and minimizing stress.
What’s the best way to approach a recent diabetes diagnosis with an elderly parent?
It’s good to approach the situation gently, ideally with a professional nurse or [caregiver]. Diabetes is not a death sentence, nor does it demand a complete lifestyle change overnight, so assuage your parent’s fears and partner with him or her—don’t preach. Find printed materials to help parents learn about their condition and the self-care program they’ll need to begin, then encourage them as they make changes. For even more advice on this topic, read an interview with two BrightStar Care [caregiver]s on DailyNurse.
What’s a healthy diet for a senior with diabetes?
To begin, it’s a good idea to talk about diet with your parent’s doctor or a registered dietician who has experience working with diabetics. The American Diabetes Association recommends using “the plate method.” With this method, begin with a nine-inch plate and pile your food about as high as a deck of cards. Fill half the plate with non-starchy vegetables, such as broccoli and carrots. On the other half, one quarter should be reserved for protein (meat, chicken, fish), and the other quarter for starches (rice, potatoes, beans). A serving each of fresh fruit and low-fat dairy can accompany the meal as sides.
The goal of the plate method is to enjoy well-balanced meals with moderate portions. A few other tips to keep in mind:
- Ask for dressings and sauces on the side
- When food arrives, portion it out right away, and save the excess to take home
- Avoid all-you-can-eat buffets
- Take the skin off poultry
- Monitor salt intake as it can increase blood pressure
- Skip dessert or split it with the family
How much exercise should older adults with diabetes get?
Exercise provides a great way to spend time with your parent or grandparent. Simply going for a walk and enjoying the sights and sounds of nature not only offers myriad health benefits, it boosts one’s mood. Over the course of a week, try to get a mix of the following:
- Aerobic exercises, such as walking, swimming, or dancing
- Weight-training, such as lifting weights, climbing stairs, or using exercise bands
- Stretching, whether yoga, Pilates, or simple stretches around the home
- Balance exercises, which may include walking backwards or sideways or standing on one foot
Is there a cure for diabetes?
Unfortunately, there is no cure for diabetes. In some instances, such as when diet and exercise alone do not help control blood glucose levels, prescription medicines and/or insulin injections may become necessary. These should be used in concert with a healthy diet and exercise regimen, not as a substitute.
Ask your parent’s doctor about these medicines commonly prescribed to diabetics:
- Injectable medications (such as exenatide, pramlintide, sitagliptin, and saxagliptin)
- Alpha-glucosidase inhibitors
What long term complications are seniors with diabetes at risk for?
If left unchecked, diabetes can have serious complications. These include:
- Vision and Hearing Loss: High blood glucose can cause delicate blood vessels in the eye and ear to rupture, affecting functioning.
- Kidney Damage: Similar to what occurs in the eyes and ears, elevated blood glucose can damage kidney cells. Initial consequences include swollen hands and feet, high blood pressure, and anemia. Longer term, the kidneys may fail.
- Heart disease: Diabetes increases risk of heart attack and stroke, raises bad cholesterol (LDL), and lowers good cholesterol (HDL).
- Infection: High blood glucose can have deleterious effects on your immune system’s ability to fend off bacteria and viruses. It can also slow blood circulation to infected tissue. In extreme cases, amputation may become necessary.
- Cognitive impairment: Studies show that high blood glucose levels can increase a person’s risk for dementia and generally impair cognitive function.
My parent has Alzheimer’s as well as diabetes. What special considerations should I take?
It’s not safe for older adults with Alzheimer’s to try to manage their own medicines. In addition, depending on how progressed the Alzheimer’s is, a senior may forget to plan, prepare, and eat meals. For this reason, it’s recommended someone—whether a family member or in-home [caregiver]—assist your parent with taking medicines and eating properly.