How to Manage Diabetes Simply in a Not-So-Simple Program

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2020, 10% of the U.S. population had diabetes, the percentage of adults with diabetes increased with age (reaching 26.8% in those ages 65 and older), and those rates are rising.

Considering these statistics, in this issue concentrated on personal narratives about food and the impact it has across the life course, we wagered a piece on how older adults are successfully aging with diabetes would fit right in. We spoke to two people who participate in the Cray Diabetes Self-Management Center’s program, which is part of the University of Kansas Health System.

Learning and Connecting

Alfred Hussar is a 76-year-old widower, retired from a long career in engineering with some architectural design. He had his first bout with diabetes about 20 years ago and is someone who appreciates the maximum amount of information in any situation. The Cray Center’s program certainly provides that.

“One thing I like about it is despite it being a large organization … there’s a feeling of being a small intimate operation because of the people involved who are really dedicated to what they’re doing,” said Hussar, as he spoke glowingly about his primary care physician (PCP) at the university, likening their relationship to that of two old friends.

Previously he had been frustrated by doctors moving on to different practices or having to change doctors due to insurance issues. At Cray the diabetes experts, from PCPs to nurse practitioners to nutritionists and physical therapists, plus counselors who run support groups, are all in one place.

And because it can be difficult to switch to diabetes-healthy meals, Cray has a popular program of cooking classes that are virtual, with occasional in-person classes and recipes Hussar describes as “interesting and delicious.”

At the Landon Center on Aging connected to the university, there are weekly informational programs about living with diabetes, covering everything from Medicare to estate planning to art classes. Hussar particularly appreciates that classes he attends are limited to people older than age 50, making it easier for him to connect.

The exercise classes not only function to improve his physical health, but there are real conversations going on before, during and after class. “The instructor tries to lead us away from politics and religion, but we outnumber her, so…” said Hussar, laughing.

‘When you’re there, you feel like they could fix anything.’

When first starting at Cray he said his numbers were a mess, his kidney function way below par, but after adjusting medications his numbers started closing in on the healthy range. His PCP, nurse and an endocrinologist he sees are covered by Medicare, and Cray picks up the tab for the support groups, cooking and exercise classes.

“What I’ve discovered is that every specialist I’ve talked to, and I’ve talked to more doctors in the past 4 years than some do in their entire lives, but they are all knowledgeable, they all talk to you, they all listen and you feel like you’re actually communicating with a person,” Hussar said.

“When you’re there, you feel like they could fix anything.”

Getting Serious About Health

Carol Powers Carlson is 70, retired from a 33-year teaching career, and found out she had diabetes in 2002. She’s a fan of the positivity emanating from Cray’s support groups. “The support groups are like having cheerleaders,” she said. In one class a person’s numbers will be up, then when the numbers are back down the next month or maybe they have lost weight, it’s like having a cheering section, Powers Carlson said, “we all act like a team.”

When she first learned she had the disease she admits to being “discouraged.”

The diagnosis spurred her to get serious about her health—an epiphany she now calls a silver lining. Despite her husband being an excellent cook (he was head chef at an Italian restaurant for more than 35 years), they have altered their diets substantially to align with a diabetes-healthy diet, plus she has taken to walking an hour a day, five days a week.

And she began attending the Cray support groups to learn all she could about how to best live with diabetes, especially considering she has co-existing conditions that make a typical diabetes diet difficult to follow. She, too, appreciates the exercise and cooking classes, and the speakers Dietitian Nutritionist Pattie Lueyot, who serves as diabetes educator at Cray, arranges to talk to the group.

Mostly Powers Carlson likes being able to pick the brain of said speakers, and, similar to Hussar, values being grouped with others who share specific health issues. She also values the Landon Center as a resource, especially their brown bag lunch sessions on informative topics.

“The programs, especially the cooking classes, have motivated me to learn more, and given me hope that I can stay healthy for a long time as long as I stick to as much healthy eating as possible,” Powers Carlson said.

“Cray, the Landon Center, classmates and leaders have just really helped motivate me to continue trying to reach exercise and diet goals more of the time, which makes the diabetes journey more manageable.”

Alison Biggar is ASA's editorial director.

Photo credit: Shutterstock/mother_ana