By Mrinal Gokhale
It is well known that diabetes is commonly found among the elderly, often along with chronic conditions like high blood pressure and cholesterol.
Milwaukee County’s elderly population and racial diversity is high, which contributes to diabetes rates that are much higher than in other Wisconsin areas, according to Vice President of Healthy Living Laura Rooney at YMCA of Metropolitan Milwaukee.
“Forty percent of Milwaukee County residents were said to be at risk of pre-diabetes compared to the twenty five percent Wisconsin state average, according to 2011 State of Wisconsin Department of Health Services reports,” she said.
She noted other contributing factors include lifestyle, access to healthcare, genetics, race and ethnicity.
“Highest diabetes and pre-diabetes prevalence is seen in American Indians and Alaska Natives followed by African Americans, Hispanic/Latinos and Asian Americans.”
Rooney oversees the YMCA Diabetes Prevention Program (DPP), a yearlong support group for adults who are at-risk for type two diabetes or have pre-diabetes.
For the first sixteen weeks, participants meet and learn ways to increase physical activity, healthy eating habits, gain confidence, and ultimately lose five to seven percent of body weight.
Then, they meet once a month. During the sixteen weeks, they get a free YMCA membership for core exercise classes, such as SilverSneakers, a nationwide popular program for older adults. “’Something is better than nothing’ is the approach we use,” said Rooney.
“We encourage participants to exercise 150 minutes per week, and people can tailor this based on their needs.”
Since the program’s inception in 2011, the Milwaukee Y has partnered with many organizations, expanding DPP inside and outside YMCA facilities.
“Ninety-four percent of participants from 2011 to 2015 have reported an improvement in their overall health since joining,” she said.
Venodia Reaves, RN, has been administering medications and other treatments for diabetic patients for many years.
She emphasizes the importance of healthy eating and exercise in her household, and is familiar with stigmas facing those in poverty.
“Familial history of diabetes, high blood pressure, and high intake of fatty and sugary food increase probability of contracting diabetes,” she explained.
“Some people don’t know the importance of healthy eating and just follow their family’s example.”
Reaves said individuals with type one diabetes are typically prescribed insulin and type two diabetes patients take blood glucose medication orally.
She said avoiding medication and not making appropriate lifestyle changes can cause death, adding that common symptoms include frequent urination, severe itching, blurred vision, increased appetite, blood glucose greater than 130 and numbness or tingling of toes and thighs.
“My most memorable severely diabetic patient was an elderly, thin man with his toes appearing as though they were hanging by thread from his feet,” she said.
“I asked the supervising nurse what I can do for him.
She said ‘nothing’ and he eventually succumbed.” Reaves understands that people in poverty may not have access to healthy foods, but she still feels there is a way.
“Collect coupons. Plant seasonal gardens during warmer weather. Contact food pantries, nonprofit organizations and churches. Lastly, read ingredient labels before buying,” she advised.
Rooney said YDPP participants learn to improve their eating habits. She feels lack of natural food sources and high intake of processed, sugary foods contributes to diabetes risk, especially among children.
“We promote the U.S. Dietary Guidelines and the MyPlate model which recommend at least half the plate includes fruits and vegetables, and the rest should include whole grains, lean proteins and healthy dairy.”
Eligibility for the DPP program is determined by ADA risk assessment questionnaires, physician conducted hemoglobin A1C test results and history of gestational diabetes.