Managing Type 2 Diabetes: How to Identify and Overcome Age-Related Obstacles

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Specific problems older adults face with type 2 diabetes

There's no denying that an older adult with type 2 diabetes faces significant hurdles in keeping the disease under control. But with the expertise, support, and compassion of her healthcare team, caregivers, and family and friends, she can keep on track.

  • Increased insulin resistance. The body's ability to respond to and use the insulin it produces tends to decline as a person ages, even if an older adult isn't particularly overweight or inactive.

  • Symptoms that can be hard to recognize. Older adults with diabetes often don't recognize the symptoms of the disease. One sign of diabetes is increased thirst, for example, but older adults tend to lose their ability to recognize this sensation. And they may just chalk up frequent urination, another warning sign, to advanced age.

  • Symptoms that can be contradictory. When the person in your care does experience signs of type 2 diabetes, they may be confusing. For instance, she may feel tired, hungry, and shaky, which are symptoms of hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar -- but these are also symptoms of hyperglycemia, or high blood sugar.

  • Physical complications. Older adults with diabetes often aren't diagnosed with the disease until an associated complication, such as vision loss, nerve damage, kidney failure, or cardiovascular disease, emerges, which suggests that the disorder may have been present for several years.

  • Complications from medications. Older adults are particularly susceptible to hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar, which can be triggered by medications, including drugs such as insulin that are designed to treat diabetes.

  • Memory loss. Coping with diabetes requires a reasonably high level of cognitive or mental function. A diabetes patient needs to follow a treatment plan that includes diet, exercise, medication, blood sugar testing, and other self-care measures. It can be hard to keep track of all that.

  • Dementia. Older adults with diabetes have a higher incidence of both Alzheimer's disease and other dementias, making it difficult for them to perform even routine complex tasks. Garden-variety memory loss associated with aging can also affect how well someone deals with diabetes.

Ways to monitor type 2 diabetes to ensure that it's controlled

With your help, the person in your care can take some simple steps to monitor her type 2 diabetes. Along with healthy lifestyle changes and medications prescribed by her doctor, these will give her the best possible chance of controlling her diabetes and living a fulfilling life. Because of the particular challenges an older adult faces with type 2 diabetes, your support in making sure her diabetes is being properly monitored is vital.

  • Regular blood sugar monitoring. Encourage a diabetes patient to test regularly and often so she has a good sense of her blood sugar numbers. This will take the guesswork out of whether or not she's in her target range -- regardless of symptoms.

  • Routine checkups. Make sure she has regular checkups and visits with specialists to address any diabetes-related complications she may have. Find out more about who to have on the patient's healthcare team.

  • Tracking sheets. Help her set up simple self-care tracking systems, such as a preformatted sheet or logbook for recording her blood glucose test results, as well as a similar sheet for keeping up with medications. (The American Society of Consultant Pharmacists offers a downloadable medication record form.)

  • Professional help. If you're unsure of her ability to practice self-care, discuss any physical or mental impairment issues with her primary diabetes healthcare provider. It's helpful if you provide specific examples of the difficulties the person faces in managing her diabetes.