Tips for Parents of College-Bound Students
Parents of students headed off to college have to navigate the waters of separation. That job only intensifies when their children have diabetes. Mary Burke-Roth, RN, an oncology nurse, knows this all too well—she went through it when she moved her daughter, Christina Roth, to the University of Massachusetts–Amherst six years ago. "It was difficult," Burke-Roth recalls. "I'm a nurse and it was still difficult. Luckily, she was very independent so she kind of helped prepare me."
Getting a young adult with diabetes ready for college is a process for both parents and students. Here are some tips to make that move easier.
Start the Transition Early
It's important to talk before students leave the nest about issues that might arise at school. Christina Roth, who is now CEO and founder of the College Diabetes Network, a nonprofit organization supporting college students with diabetes and their parents, says laying the groundwork ahead of time can make taking the step toward college easier. "Start fostering independence," she says. Encourage your young adult child to talk about unfamiliar situations he or she may face, such as new schedules, foods, exposure to alcohol, and late nights. Besides carrying glucose to treat lows, students need to check blood glucose frequently to see how they react to such changes.
Prepare for Campus Life
Most college students are 18 or older—so they're legally adults and must make legal decisions about their health themselves, unless they sign forms saying their parents can still be involved in their health care decisions. But that doesn't mean they have to manage health without support. Crystal Jackson, director of the American Diabetes Association's Safe at School® program (and mother of a recent college grad with diabetes), says it's important for students and parents to know their rights before classes start. Students will want to meet with disability services staff to explain their needs in the classroom, dormitory, and dining hall. A 504 plan (a legal document that ensures students with diabetes have the same access to education as other students) and/or letters of accommodation can be used in college. Educating residence advisors about diabetes (and making sure students can have a small refrigerator to keep insulin cold and snacks nearby) is another step students can take with parents' encouragement.
Beyond the classroom and dormitory, parents can help students plan for their own medical care. "Whether they choose to use a local health care provider as their regular provider, or just as a go-to while they're at college, they should work to identify a provider," Jackson says. Parents might also talk with their students before classes start about supplies: Who will order them? Where will they be shipped? Will the student have a local pharmacy? These questions will ideally be answered before students first crack the books.
Set the Tone
It's a fine line between being concerned and being overbearing when it comes to a college student's diabetes care. "It's always a balance between being 'nudgy' and being a respectful parent who's letting the kite string out," Jackson says. So as your child leaves for college, have a conversation about how involved you will be in his or her continued self-care.
"You don't want every conversation to be about diabetes, and you don't want a million calls a day," Roth says. So maybe you will call once a week to check in on your child's diabetes management. Roth also suggests that a medical portal—an online listing of your student's diabetes care and treatment that students, their parents, and their health care team can all access—can help parents feel up to date from a distance. Check with your student's health care team or diabetes educator to learn how to set one up.
For students heading off to college, and their parents,
here are sources of advice on how to make the transition a success.
Observe the Empty Nest
Just as students can benefit from diabetes resources ("Support Systems," right), parents may also need a little assurance. The College Diabetes Network offers a section on its website for parents, including care-package ideas, tips from peers, and a message board where parents can chat online in real time.
Jackson says it's important for parents to remember that they've raised their children to be ready for life away from home—whether or not they have diabetes. Parents need to feel confident that they've prepared their children to meet their own needs, stay healthy, and follow their diabetes care regimen, she says. And if parents still feel the need to be involved in diabetes care, Jackson suggests volunteering with local ADA efforts. The place to start is the Association's Volunteer Center at diabetes.org/volunteer.