How can I help my mom, who seems really down about her diabetes diagnosis?

A fellow caregiver asked...

My mother seems depressed by her recent diagnosis of type 2 diabetes. What should I do?

Expert Answer

Theresa Garnero is clinical nurse manager of Diabetes Services at California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco.

You can be a big help to your mother by supporting her, acknowledging her feelings, and partnering with her as she comes to grips with having this major medical disorder. It may help to know that she's not alone; at least a third of people with diabetes struggle with depression, and people with the disease experience depression at a rate two to four times greater than the general population. Simply listening to her concerns and fears is a good place to start. Try to avoid giving her advice -- just let her vent.

Your mom may feel overwhelmed by the disease, and the changes necessary to control it may feel insurmountable. Help her find ways to cope by tackling change in small chunks. You could offer to walk with her after dinner so she gets some exercise. Maybe she'd like you to come to doctor's appointments with her. Or perhaps you could cook healthy meals for her. Or maybe she wants you to call to remind her to take her medications. Ask her what might be useful and follow her lead.

Talk with her diabetes educator about finding a support group. This can be an invaluable place for her to express her feelings and learn coping skills from her peers.

And remember, it's perfectly normal for your mom to feel blue at first about the news that she has this complex, long-term condition. Depression is a natural coping mechanism that serves a psychological purpose for a brief period of time. But if your mother's depression persists for more than a couple of weeks, you may also want to encourage her to seek professional help. Red flags include a lack of interest in activities that normally bring joy, difficulty concentrating, a lack of energy, withdrawal from social interaction, changes in sleeping habits (such as difficulty sleeping or waking early), a lack of appetite, and feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness, or despair. Her primary healthcare provider should be able to refer her to a therapist, psychologist, or social worker -- ideally one with experience caring for those with diabetes -- who can guide her during this transition and help her find solutions to the problems she faces. Your mom's primary doctor will also want to rule out any physical causes that could contribute to her sadness.

It's important that your mom get the help she needs, because depression can get in the way of diabetes self-care and create a vicious cycle. When she feels bad, she may not be up to tasks such as blood sugar testing, taking her meds, eating well, or keeping active, and all of these can affect her blood sugar levels.