Supporting an elderly parent with diabetes

It’s no secret that diabetes is hard to handle. This is true for those who have the condition themselves, but also for their friends, family and loved ones. Daniel Sher covers some pointers for supporting an elderly parent with their diabetes. 

Problem solve around their needs

Ask what you can do to support your elderly parent and use their response to start a conversation. Acknowledge that you might not fully understand how best to help. Remind them that they don’t need to walk this path alone.

What if they don’t know what sort of help they need? If this is the case, you can brainstorm the following questions:

  • Can I help you plan and prepare healthy and delicious meal options?
  • Do you need any help with scheduling and remembering medical appointments?
  • Doctors’ visits can be stressful, would you like it if I accompanied you?
  • Would it be useful if we set up a system to help you remember to take your meds and check your glucose at the right time?
  • Is there anything about diabetes that you don’t understand? How would you feel about us researching it together?

Try to phrase your questions in an open-ended manner, to encourage conversations aimed at helping you learn how best to assist. Your most valuable tool in this regard, is an attitude of caring curiosity.

Ask your elderly parent how he/she feels

Check in with your loved one by asking how he/she is coping emotionally. Have they had any patches of feeling down, irritable, hopeless or depressed? Having this sort of a conversation with your parent can provide valuable emotional support.

Also keep in mind that people with diabetes are at risk of developing diabetes burnout and/or clinical depression. If your parent is suffering from a mental health condition in addition to their diabetes, they should ideally get treatment from a diabetes-specialised mental health professional.

Keep thinking about their thinking

Elderly people with diabetes are at a greater risk of developing cognitive difficulties, including vascular dementia. Look out for marked memory difficulties, trouble with concentration, planning problems and generally slowed thinking, as well as changes in mood or personality.

If you notice these sorts of changes, it’s important to get your parent screened by their physician. Catching these sorts of symptoms early, gives you valuable time to make changes that will keep their brain as healthy as possible going forward.

Also, keep in mind that the better your parent manages their diabetes and physical health, the lower their risk of developing cognitive difficulties later down the line.

Know when to back off

It’s natural to want to help your elderly parent be as healthy as possible. However, it’s important to allow them their space. If you find yourself giving lectures, getting irritable or giving advice that ends in arguments and avoidance, these are signs that you need to take a step back. At the end of the day, your role is to support your parent in a way that helps rather than hinders their health.

Help yourself

What if your parent refuses to take your advice? It can be so hard to watch a loved one do medical damage to themselves. This can leave you feeling frustrated and hopeless, at times leading to what psychologists called caregiver burnout.

The emotional toll of caring for someone with a chronic condition is no joking matter. If you feel like you’re taking strain, it’s a good idea to find your own psychologist or counsellor who can provide you with some support.

Overall message

Diabetes is a tough condition to manage alone. As the child of someone with diabetes, you are in a valuable position to provide practical and emotional support.

Your own insight, care and compassion can go a long way when it comes to keeping your parent as happy and healthy as possible. Though, sometimes they just need you to be there for them in the capacity as a son or a daughter, not as another helper.


Daniel Sher is a registered clinical psychologist who has lived with Type 1 diabetes for over 28 years. He practices from Life Vincent Pallotti Hospital in Cape Town where he works with Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes to help them thrive. Visit

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