By: Jeannie Hickey
How many times during your work with young people and their families have you wished that you could really help them through a rough time in their lives? Young people with diabetes and their families often feel overwhelmed, both physically and emotionally, by all that they must learn and manage. They can feel very alone if they don’t know anyone who can understand their diabetes fears and trials.
A diabetes camp is just the place to help. At camp children play, have fun, do cool stuff, check sugars, and learn positive ways to manage their diabetes. Imagine a camp where practically everyone has diabetes, even the counselors. Suddenly you are no longer alone. The days are busy, full of activities, crafts, dance, sports, swimming, meals, snacks, and new friends (all with type 1 or type 2). There’s even some quiet time! Blood sugars are checked at least four times a day and during the night. Treatment protocols for mini-dose glucagon, carbs, or insulin are used as needed.
At diabetes camp, education is a part of the daily routine. Campers are encouraged and guided to learn new things (maybe their first self-injection or a new insulin pump site). Social workers or psychologists are typically present to assist with the psychosocial challenges of the child and family. If a teen camper just wants a break from being totally responsible, counselors can take on the burden for a short while.
Diabetes camp allows children to feel safe, to let go of private worries about blood sugars and low supplies. Everyone at camp eats together: Celiac, vegetarian, or allergic, all are accommodated. Practically everyone takes insulin, so it’s just no big deal. While waiting at the lake for a milkshake, everyone checks sugars: “Let the counselor see so it can be written down on your log. Oh, and here’s the insulin, a syringe, and a sharps container. Be sure to show me your dose, and let me watch you inject.” On a hike, when one child wants to stop and check a sugar, the call goes around: “Who else needs to?”
As a child in 1967, I attended Bearskin Meadow, a summer camp run by the Diabetic Youth Foundation out of Concord, California. What had been a year of worry at home was incorporated into fun while I was at camp. These days, campers no longer have to carry their cup of urine to the lab, but insulin doses are still carefully adjusted according to the day’s activity, prior sugar results, and carbs eaten. Each diabetes decision is an opportunity for a “teachable moment” with campers. I now go to Bearskin Meadow as Med Staff, teaching when I can, but also learning from the Medical Director and earning continuing education hours!
The ADA has guidelines for camps-staffing ratios, background checks on staff, and proper care of diabetes. The Diabetes Education and Camping Association (DECA), with over 100 diabetes camps in its U.S. membership, also has accreditation standards for camps to follow.
Many camps have variable length programs depending on the target age. There are day camps, one to two week residential sessions, backpacking opportunities, ski weekends, and sleepovers to allow tired parents a night out. There are even diabetes camp cruises. For those who are trying to incorporate fitness, a six-day diabetes training camp is offered at three different U.S. locations each year. Some of the camps listed through DECA and the ADA specifically mention type 2, and some camps are offered in Spanish. Every state has at least one diabetes camp, and scholarships are often available that even cover transportation costs.
Studies by the American Camp Association show that children who go to camp have higher self-esteem and are more independent. I know that my own camp experience has been influential in my acceptance and understanding of my diabetes. Diabetes camp is a wonderful opportunity for learning, for fun, and for feeling normal. Every person and family should go, and every diabetes educator should go at least once. Think of what you as an educator could learn at camp about the real life and times of your diabetes patients.
Jeannie Hickey, RN, CDE, works as a nurse for Kaiser Permanente in Martinez, California, and as a DYF camp nurse. She’s been coping with her own type 1 diabetes since 1965 and has used a pump since 1989. She enjoys providing a foster home for dogs in training with the Dogs4Diabetics organization.