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Somebody to Lean On: Support Groups Offer Help for Diabetes

December 2, 2013

When David Eller’s doctor told him that he had type 2 diabetes nearly 20 years ago, his wife, Helen Eller, was worried. She was sure her husband wouldn’t cooperate with the drastic changes to diet and lifestyle that the disease requires.

“I’ll be frank. He’s kind of bullheaded,” Eller said. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, he’s going to fight me every step of the way.’ But he didn’t. He’s been a model patient.”

Eller said her husband’s cooperation might not have been so easy without his diabetes support group. On the second Monday of every month, the Ellers attend the Middle Georgia Diabetes Support Group, offered by the South Central Health District in Dublin, Ga. They learn tips from diabetes experts, but they also go to share information with other people dealing with diabetes.

Eller, 72, said she and her husband, 75, get help from the support group that they can’t get from his regular doctor.

“At a doctor’s appointment, you get maybe 10 minutes if you’re lucky. Even with the best doctor, it’s not the same as sitting down with another person who deals with the same problems that you do,” she said.

Experts are increasingly recommending support groups as an important part of diabetes care. Although research hasn’t definitively determined the exact impact of support groups on patients’ diabetes outcomes, groups like the American Diabetes Association say people can benefit by learning from others with the same condition.

Melissa Brantley, health promotion coordinator for the South Central Health District, said the Middle Georgia Diabetes Support Group has helped people who felt they had nowhere else to turn.

“So many people have come to the group and been close to tears because they felt alone. They didn’t know how to change, and they felt they were only person with diabetes,” she said. “It’s important to have that support because it’s such a life-changing event to be diagnosed with diabetes.”

The group began in 2006, hosting about 10 people in a small room in the Fairview Park Hospital in Dublin. But now meetings regularly have 30 attendees, so large that the group had to move its meetings to the cafeteria of the Benton House, an assisted living facility.

Brantley said it’s no wonder the demand is so high. The support group is the only formal diabetes education in the area.

 “We’re it. Which is unfortunate in a way, but fortunate in that we’re able to touch so many lives,” Brantley said.

Support groups can be especially important in states like Georgia, where certain areas have scarce health care and resources for people with diabetes. More than 700,000 Georgians – nearly 10 percent of the state – live with diabetes, according to data from the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH). Many of them live in rural areas far from official diabetes self-management education programs.

Craig Roberts, 54, started his own diabetes support group in Waycross, Ga. about 10 years ago, after the only diabetes educator in the 16 counties around Waycross left her job and was never replaced. He put an ad in the local newspaper, and he got calls from about 50 people interested in attending.

“Diabetes is not an easy condition to manage. I’ve been doing it for 50 years, and it’s still no piece of cake,” said Roberts, who has type 1 diabetes. “People need to learn to manage their disease so they can stay healthy and stop any complications.”

Each month, Diabetics in the Area of Waycross Gathering for Support – DAWGS for short – gathers in a meeting room at the Mayo Clinic Health System in Waycross.  Roberts brings in diabetes educators and health care providers to talk about foot care, skin care, blood glucose meters, eye care, nutrition and exercise, among other topics. But about half of the meetings are designed so that group members can just talk and trade their own tips on managing the disease.

The group is a mix of ages and diabetes diagnoses – pre-diabetes, gestational diabetes, as well as type 1 and type 2. Roberts said people get practical advice for living with their disease, but perhaps even more important, they get emotional support and encouragement.

“It’s important for a person with diabetes to not feel like they’re alone,” Roberts said.

For more information about Roberts’ DAWGS group, visit www.livingwellwithdiabetes.org.

To learn more about diabetes care and prevention, visit the Diabetes Prevention and Control page on DPH’s website. 

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