Rather than water skiing or playing baseball with his father, Doug Lockewood (whose name we changed at his request) spent much of his teen years taking care of his father and worrying about him. His father had diabetes, and when his mother wasn’t available, the responsibility fell on Doug to change the blood-soaked bandages on his father’s feet that were covering up sores his dad couldn’t feel.
His father’s diabetic neuropathy got worse and he had to have several toes removed. Soon after, his left leg had to be amputated as his diabetes complications worsened. And after that, his right leg was taken too. He was left with two prosthetics and was wheelchair bound.
The disease was taking away his father “piece by piece” as Doug described it.
But his father refused to change. He would eat whatever he wanted and then try to counteract the effects of the food by using insulin, Doug recalled. And he wouldn’t exercise either, despite playing sports and being athletic as a younger man.
“He wouldn’t even accept a small amount of discomfort or change. Like even drinking a diet soda. He was very stubborn.”
That stubbornness led to the end of his marriage and put him in and out of the hospital—and eventually on dialysis due to kidney failure.
Constant reminders from close family that he should exercise and eat better didn’t help, even when they turned to demands.
“After something would happen we would sit down and have a big heart-to-heart. We would tell him: ‘You have to lose weight. You have to make changes.’”
He would change briefly, but when left to his own devices he would quickly fall back into his old habits.
And as a young teen, Lockewood struggled with how to handle the situation.
“As kids, we’re taught to listen to our parents. So if your dad calls you and tells you to bring him home fast food, that’s what you do.”
His father’s heart eventually gave out and he died as a result of complications from his diabetes.
Doug’s situation is not unique; many people have friends or family members who ignore their diabetes. And while it may seem like a personal decision, it has far-reaching effects. He is now a grown man with his own family, but the effects of his father’s diabetes are still with him.
“Ignoring the disease has a lot of impact, not just on the diabetic himself but on his family. We had to go through a lot.”
Ignoring your diabetes can lead to many complications down the road, according to Prevention. Your cholesterol and blood pressure can rise, your vision can fade, your kidneys can fail, your nerves can fray, you may lose a foot, you are likely to have a major cardiac event, and, ultimately, your life will probably shorten.
But the effects on your loved ones may be even greater. Doug recalls feeling frustrated and at times helpless. But he also says that it became a part of his reality.
“It was just always the way it was,” he says.
Why do people ignore their diabetes?
We all handle difficult situations differently. Doug’s father chose an apathetic approach to his diabetes.
“It just didn’t seem important to him. He felt like he could beat the disease without making any changes.”
But that mindset seemed to change over time. Doug’s father received a lot of sympathy and attention from his children and family as he struggled with the disease. At one point, Doug was calling his father three or four times a day to make sure he was okay. It is possible, he theorizes, that his father might have liked this, perhaps even on an unconscious level.
“It seemed like he enjoyed all the attention he was receiving and being waited on,” Doug says. “He would get cards, balloons, and phone calls all the time. So maybe that played a part.”
For others, the reasons to ignore diabetes may be different.
“A lot of people carry a lot of emotional baggage related to diabetes and their families,” Tracy L. Breen, MD, clinical director of the Mount Sinai diabetes program told WebMD. “They had a parent or sibling who had the disease, and so they know even the early symptoms, yet they ignore them because they don’t want to go through the same thing.”
Some people may not notice the subtle signs of diabetes early on, or may feel they are too minimal to take seriously. Others may try to hide their diabetes and its symptoms because they don’t want to become a burden to their family.
Sometimes people deny their diabetes because they think that will keep them from feeling overwhelmed or depressed, according the American Diabetes Association. But denying that your diabetes is serious lets you avoid self-care, the ADA states. It shields you from the fact that diabetes is a lifelong, chronic illness, which, if left untreated, can result in complications.
“Maybe I should have stood up more,” Lockewood said, reflecting on what he could have done differently to help his father. “But it’s hard because you don’t want to hurt your father’s feelings.”
What can family members do?
The ADA says enlisting friends and family can help people confront diabetes denial. Tell your friends and family how they can help, the ADA suggests. Let them know that encouraging you to go off your plan is not a kindness. Inform them about how you take care of your diabetes—they might want to adopt some of your healthy habits.
The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases offers several tips for helping a loved one with diabetes. They include:
• Find ways to help your loved one manage the stress of living with diabetes. Being a good listener is often the most important thing you can do to help.
• Ask your loved one if he or she would like reminders about doctor visits, when to check blood sugar, and when to take medicine.
• Help your loved one write a list of questions for the healthcare team.
• Eat well. Help your loved one make meals that include foods such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
• Find things you can do together such as walking, dancing, or gardening. Being active is a great way to handle stress and it may also help improve diabetes control.
Doug said people who ignore their diabetes have similar needs to drug or alcohol addicts. To treat them, there needs to be a focus on mental health, psychology, and the idea of reprogramming and refocusing their thoughts, he said. And all the family members who are affected need to step in and make themselves seen.
“You really have to approach it like an intervention,” he says. “It can’t just be a couple people here and there.”
Doug recalled that a “tough love” approach worked briefly for his father. When his mother and father separated, his father was forced to live on his own and take care of himself. Doug’s mother could no longer handle the burden of his constant care.
Doug’s father became more self-sufficient on his own and even returned to work.
“It actually improved his quality of life,” he says. “It was hard for her but [for a while] she saved his life by doing that.”
But ultimately, no matter how much his family wanted him to change, the limited internal desire he managed to muster wasn’t enough.
“As bad as you want them to change, they have to want to change,” Doug says. “It was frustrating for me. All he had to do was control what he ate and exercise. But he wouldn’t do it.”
Do you know people who ignore their diabetes? How have you helped them? Share your thoughts and experiences with our community by commenting below.