Group offers lifeline for diabetics in Barking and Dagenham

Bill Foulkes is the founder of the Barking and Dagenham branch of charity Diabetes UK. Picture: Cash

Bill Foulkes is the founder of the Barking and Dagenham branch of charity Diabetes UK. Picture: Cash Boyle - Credit: Archant

Today it’s estimated that 4.7 million people in the UK have diabetes, the equivalent of a person being diagnosed every two minutes.

L-R: Bill Foulkes, Picture: Cash Boyle

L-R: Bill Foulkes, Picture: Cash Boyle - Credit: Archant

Today it's estimated that 4.7 million people in the UK have diabetes, the equivalent of a person being diagnosed every two minutes.

Numbers are increasing, having more than trebled from the 1.4 million people diagnosed in 1996. That makes the work of leading charity Diabetes UK more valuable than ever.

The Barking and Dagenham branch was founded by Bill Foulkes, Marian McCullough and Dr Graham Toms in 2003. It meets every month, with Bill adamant that group members dictate the agenda. After all, he says, those who have diabetes are the real experts.

This month the issue of support dominated the discussion. As an attendee who, until recently, had a basic knowledge (at best), my eyes were firmly opened.

Diabetes is multi-faceted in its impact. As a condition defined by the body's inability to properly process blood glucose (sugar), we have all seen how diabetics respond to having high or low blood sugar. Most of us know that there are two types, and that diabetics take insulin to regulate what their bodies cannot. Like many conditions, the physical effects are easier to see and understand.

The emotional aspect of living with diabetes is less scientific but just as important.

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I learned that many diabetics feel isolated. They value their engagement with the local group as a forum for discussion. This is exactly what Bill wanted when he founded the group 17 years ago.

At first, he found his own diabetes "confusing", commenting that: "You don't know what to eat. When I was first diagnosed, I went to a party where I ate six chips and worried all night."

Bill doesn't want that worry to plague his fellow diabetics, which is why these meetings matter so much.

This month's guest speakers were Sean and Francesca from the national group helpline. Sean heaped praise on the local group: "This kind of group is a direct contradiction to the isolation sometimes associated with diabetes. Diabetes UK advocates these groups as a support mechanism."

Figures presented showed the top concerns of diabetics, with the need for emotional support coming out on top. Other prevalent issues included diet, medication and managing Type 2 diabetes.

I quickly realized that much of diabetes management is underpinned by emotional distress. Questions may have focused on practical issues, but the desire for answers is entirely about emotional wellbeing.

One gentleman posed the question of autonomy — "whose job is it to manage my diabetes?" — before answering that it was his. He said that owning his condition helps him to feel emotionally healthy.

Another spoke about food labelling, explaining his difficulty in knowing what to buy. This leaves him feeling unsure in the supermarket aisle. One lady lamented the lack of variety in her diet, commenting that eating near-constant salads takes the pleasure out of food.

Francesca then highlighted the link between food and pleasure, emphasising the extent of the sacrifice. Diabetics can often feel like a bystander while everyone else enjoys food. It was at that point that another attendee gave the advice of the night: "My doctor told me that the right diet for a diabetic is the right diet for everybody."

Everything in moderation. The room nodded in agreement as a sense of relief filled the space. I considered the benefits of open and easy discussion. For those at the meeting, it is clearly the best way of managing their condition.

I shared my thoughts with Debbie Cox, a lead diabetes specialist nurse who was also in attendance. She told me that, in her 18 years in the role she has found many diabetics unwilling to openly admit their diagnosis.

She has been involved with the local group for two years and says that it's vital for people to have support. Thanks to Bill, Marian and Graham, diabetics in Barking and Dagenham have that.

The next meeting is the group AGM, which will take place on Monday, March 9 from 7.30pm at Dagenham and Redbridge FC, Victoria Road, Dagenham.

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