Bob Pedersen had been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes for only a few weeks when he went out to dinner with friends. Still working to reduce his carbohydrate intake, Pedersen came up with a plan: He would ask his waiter not to bring the bread that came with his meal. The server was a chatty guy, Pedersen says, and kept encouraging him to take the roll. It got awkward. Finally, one of Pedersen’s dinner companions, in an effort to defuse the situation, said, “He doesn’t want it because he has diabetes.”
Pedersen’s friend was just trying to help, but she disclosed his diabetes to a stranger—a breach of etiquette that put Pedersen in an even more awkward position. His friend thought the waiter needed to know Pedersen had diabetes; Pedersen, 51, of Kansas City, Mo., disagreed. “I didn’t necessarily feel good about it,” he says. “I’m not mad at anybody, but I think at that moment she showed a lack of respect for my ability to handle myself and make my own choices.”
So, should you ever disclose someone else’s health status, even if the person looks to you for care? Probably not, says Joseph P. Napora, PhD, LCSW-C, author of Stress-Free Diabetes. Of course, when something comes up that could affect your loved one’s health (such as going out for a meal or exercise), you want to be helpful. Here are some tips to support your loved one, who should make the decision about whether to share the diagnosis.
→ Communicate. Find out what your loved one with diabetes wants you—and others—to know about the disease. If you’re still relatively new to diabetes, Napora suggests asking the person with diabetes what you should know. If you are more familiar with the disease, check back in. “Say, ‘Again, it’s your call. You’ve got diabetes; we know it and respect it. What do you want to do about it?’ ” he says.
→ Be “emotionally smart.” In Stress-Free Diabetes, Napora defines being emotionally smart as living mindfully, recognizing and accepting your feelings, and managing them constructively. When trying to help your loved one with diabetes, use these skills by checking yourself: Why do you want to disclose someone else’s health status, and how will he or she feel if you do? It’s best to think before speaking here.
→ Follow the leader. Ultimately, people with diabetes know what’s personally acceptable, so take a backseat and let them handle the situation until they ask for your help. “I think in a situation like this, which is public, the way to go would be to wait for an opportunity to ask privately if there’s anything [you] can do,” says Pedersen. “I don’t mind that the waiter knows that I’m diabetic, but that’s something I feel different about now than I did at the time. The respect issue is more important than the disclosure issue.”
There are caveats to the “don’t ever disclose” advice, though. If you’re a caregiver for a minor, an adult dependent, or an elderly person who needs assistance, it’s prudent to mention the diabetes to other caregivers and in emergency situations. But generally it’s helpful to let the person with diabetes take the reins, Napora says. “The important thing is to do that in an appropriate way,” he adds. Discretion is appreciated.