A Caregiver Makes the Healthy Choice to Change Her Diet

Caring for her mom, she'd seen how diabetes could impact a life. She had to start caring for herself too.

Posted in , Aug 8, 2018

A Caregiver Makes the Healthy Choice to Change Her Diet

They say every working mom does a juggling act with personal, family and professional responsibilities. I sure knew how that felt the spring of 2003. My twins—son Ryan, and daughter Lauren—were finishing their senior year of high school. There were my eighth-grader Olivia’s soccer games to cheer at. My 76-year-old mother lived close by and depended on us for everything from lawn care to managing her diabetes meds. I worked full-time as a technical writer and was constantly under deadline pressure. Even though my husband, Larry, was an enormous help, I felt run down.

Then Mom landed in the hospital with severe complications of diabetes, and I thought everything I was frantically juggling would come crashing down around me. Still, when I met with the specialist who was treating my mother, I didn’t expect him to ask about my health.

“I’m here about my mom,” I said.

“You are your mother’s primary caregiver,” the doctor said. “She needs you to be in good shape to help her.”

“I’m fine,” I insisted.

“Really?” he asked pointedly.

All right, it was obvious I was a good 40 pounds overweight. Grudgingly, I admitted my diet wasn’t healthy, I didn’t exercise and I wasn’t sleeping well.

“Your mother’s problems are all related to her diabetes. With your poor lifestyle habits, you’re headed down the same path.” His bluntness caught me off guard. “But it’s not too late to adopt a healthy lifestyle,” he said. “It’s about the choices you make every day.”

The doctor’s words nagged at me long after I’d left his office. But you know how sometimes you need more than one nudge from God to make a change? That’s how I was. Besides, I didn’t have time to think about how to make better choices every day. What with finding a nursing facility for Mom and coordinating her care, Olivia’s games and the twins’ senior prom and graduation, spring went by in a blur.

By summer Mom was recovering slowly but steadily, and I finally had time to focus on myself. One evening I was driving home from work when a discussion on the radio caught my attention: A woman who had diabetes described the shifts she’d made in her day-to-day lifestyle. She was able to stop taking insulin. Others chimed in with similar stories about healthier everyday choices. Exactly what my mother’s doctor had told me.

I did some research online before dinner. There was plenty of medical evidence to back up what I’d heard on the radio. Exercise and a proper diet could help control my blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol levels, and weight—all of which would lower my risk for diabetes. Okay, Lord, I hear you. But I’m really going to need your help to follow through. Big time. And please watch over Mom.

After dinner the kids went off to their rooms. “I want to talk to you about something,” I said to Larry. I told him about the radio show. “Starting tonight I’m changing my lifestyle. No more fatty foods and sweets. I am going to do everything possible to avoid getting diabetes.”

Larry wasn’t exactly gung ho. “Okay, but I’m not changing my diet,” he said.

“I’m not asking you to,” I said. He ate the same meat-and-potatoes diet I did and carried a few extra pounds, but this wasn’t about him. I grabbed my keys.

“Where are you going?” Larry asked.

“To the drive-through,” I said, “for my last chug of sweet tea with lemon.”

Larry’s eyes widened. Sweet tea was my addiction, and to be honest, even I couldn’t picture getting through a day without a supersize go-cup of the stuff.

Sure enough, by mid-morning the next day—my first without sweets of any kind—I had a headache and major sugar cravings. Lunch was just a small salad, dressing on the side. I didn’t want to be tempted to grab a junky snack before dinner so I went for a walk. But I only made it a few blocks before I got winded.

I staggered into the house sweaty and thirsty. A sip of sweet tea can’t hurt. Then the doctor’s words echoed in my mind. It’s about the choices you make every day. I drank a glass of cold water instead.

For dinner everyone else had grilled chicken slathered with barbecue sauce. I fixed a plate of veggies with a small breast of chicken, plain. The kids weren’t too interested in my new eating habits, but I could tell from the skeptical looks Larry gave me he didn’t think it would last.

Not long after Ryan and Lauren started college, I spent a long weekend at a seminar on reversing diabetes, led by doctors and nutrition experts. My motto became: “Whole-plant foods, walk, walk, walk and trust in God.” I felt better than I had in years. I went home and broke the news to Larry that I was switching to a vegetarian lifestyle. “I’ll still cook for you,” I said, “but not meat. If you want meat, you’ll have to cook it yourself.”

Larry thought I’d been brainwashed. “How is this going to work?” he asked. “Are we going to eat separately the rest of our lives?”

“I don’t know. But I know I need to make these changes for my health.”

Every morning I got up at 4:00 A.M. and walked the recommended 10,000 steps accompanied by my most supportive cheerleaders, my two golden retrievers. At least my other commitments couldn’t get in the way of my exercise this early, plus I could still fit in Olivia’s soccer games and visits to Mom after work.

Meals with Larry escalated into the burger wars: veggie vs. Bubba. Black beans vs. black Angus. Eating out was a hassle too. Waiters frowned because I passed on the steak and fries and ordered a baked potato and side salad.

But here was the real secret. If I was tempted to skip my walk or slug some sweet tea, I prayed my way through it. Lord, I’m counting on you.

Almost without realizing it, I found myself enjoying my new lifestyle. I liked the energy I got from early morning exercise. I collected recipes for veggie dishes and turned into an adventurous cook. One day at the supermarket I asked the produce man, “Where are your leeks?”

He pointed. “Over there.” Sheepishly I confessed I didn’t know what leeks looked like. He led me to the right bin and gave me tips on cooking them.

My healthier choices made a big difference. Within seven months I lost those 40 extra pounds and went down two dress sizes. More crucially, my stress level dropped and I slept like a rock. My mom’s condition stabilized, which definitely helped.

One morning while I was out walking, a woman stopped her car to say, “I see you exercise every day. You’ve inspired me.” That meant a lot. But not as much as the admiring looks Larry was giving me. Occasionally I’d catch him eating a salad or munching on carrot sticks. But I didn’t push him. After all, hadn’t it taken me a few nudges to make needed changes?

It took a few years, but one day Larry told me, “What you’ve done is amazing. You’re not just healthier, Susan, you’re happier.” He paused, then went on, “There’s this coronary health seminar I heard about…will you go with me?”

I had to thank God for going above and beyond what I’d asked!

The burger wars are over. Larry and I grocery shop and cook together now. Yes, he’s traded in burgers and fries for fish and veggies! We even bought bicycles so we can exercise together. We’ve been married 31 years and feel like the best is yet to come. It’s all about the choices we make every day, and knowing God is with us when we choose right.

This story first appeared in the June 2011 issue of  Guideposts magazine.

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