Preparing for ‘new, frightening’ stage of life
When Dorothy Watson began her search for a retirement facility to call home, one criteria was central in her quest.
The staff had to be able – and willing – to manage her Type 1 diabetes at the level she has for the past five decades.
Quite frankly, they had to be able to keep her alive and healthy.
“This is a new and frightening stage of life for me,” the White Rock senior said, three months into the hunt.
“Who would like to have me to practise for the future?”
Watson, a Type 1 diabetic, is only ever four to six hours away from her blood sugar shooting to life-threatening levels. It’s a reality she has lived with since she was diagnosed with the condition in 1961, at the age of 27.
“We were in San Francisco, and I wanted to drink the bay dry,” Watson recalled of symptoms that led to her diagnosis.
And while she has managed her disease well over the years since, she is starting to notice age-related changes in her vision and memory that will soon make the regimented routine she needs difficult to maintain on her own.
“I’ve lost the sight in my left eye,” she said.
Programming her insulin pump – which she has relied on to regulate her blood sugar since 2005 – is also getting complicated.
Watson’s situation is one the health-care system isn’t prepared for, said Paula Turner, a diabetes education nurse at White Rock’s iConnect Health Centre.
The senior is the oldest iConnect client Turner has seen on an insulin pump, and – as the standard for treating those with chronic conditions sit now – may not fare well in long-term care, she said.
“The resources aren’t there for her yet,” Turner said. “We’ve never had healthy seniors with diabetes before.
“When other people are more responsible for her care, they will let the blood sugar worsen.
“They don’t have the ability to intensely manage any condition, let alone diabetes.”
A less-devout management could lead to blindness, kidney failure, heart attack and stroke, Turner said.
“Going without sugar to your brain can be as bad as going without oxygen,” Turner said.
Watson, who turns 80 this month, has already survived three heart attacks and one stroke, even with the dedicated regime she’s maintained.
For 43 years, she gave herself four injections a day to control her blood sugar, keeping candies at her bedside in case of an unexpected blood-sugar drop overnight. Skipping a meal was hazardous.
Since 1982, when the process for determining blood-sugar levels evolved from testing urine to testing blood, Watson has poked her fingers up to nine times a day to ensure her levels are where they need to be.
“I would like a new set of fingers,” she quipped.
While the insulin pump made it easier to program and monitor the rate and frequency of her doses, it is not infallible, Turner said.
If it stops working, Watson’s last dose will get her through no more than six hours. After that, her blood sugar will “skyrocket” and her body will start eating itself in an attempt to get what it needs.
“I weigh 88 pounds – I don’t have a lot to donate to that,” she said.
Watson credits her commitment to the regime along with an active lifestyle to how well she’s fared over the years health-wise. When the search for a long-term care facility began in August, top of mind was how she can be assured the same level of care 10 years from now.
Monday, two weeks after moving into a suite in Christina Place in White Rock, Watson said she’s figured out a critical piece of the puzzle.
“I have learned during my search, if I have any problem, call the ambulance,” she said.
“That seems to be the secret.”
Turner said Watson’s case is the first of many, and there is still much to learn.
“Dorothy’s the beginning,” she said.
“We’re not prepared to finish the care throughout the lifespan yet.”