College And Type 101: Telling Roommates About Diabetes

College is full of new experiences, among them sharing a room with another new student. Since roommates share such a small space, it’s likely that a roommate will become part of many of the diabetes routines that were once performed by family members. For this reason, it’s important to prepare for the arrangement by having a conversation about Type 1 diabetes.

My first year roommate and I still joke about the times that my pump would malfunction. With that model, if the tube occluded or some other internal error occurred, a loud, constant beep would come from the machine. Often, when the screech first began, I would not notice. But my roommate would wake up and catch my attention so that I could take care of the problem.

I was lucky in that my college roommates became my best friends. Sometimes, they even knew when I had a low or high blood sugar before I did. But not every roommate will be understanding. Some of my “diabuddies” (buddies with diabetes) have had friendships with roommates destroyed because diabetes got in the way. It’s important to learn how to communicate needs from the beginning, so that both have an expectation of what to do in the case of an emergency.

Often, roommates connect on social media or email before moving in. This is the perfect time to start the conversation about having Type 1 diabetes, since it’s often easier to initiate uncomfortable conversations online. Doing so will help in-person conversations that follow. In introductory messages to a new roomie, one could tell them about any super artsy hobbies or favorite TV shows, but also throw in a line or two about having diabetes. It can be as simple as “Just so you don’t freak out when you see me poke myself to check my blood sugar or inject insulin, you should know I have Type 1 diabetes. You’ll get to know more about that while living with me, but I wanted to let you know.”

Then during move-in, it is imperative to keep communication about diabetes consistent. I had a whole shelf where I put my pump supplies, glucose tabs, and other diabetes supplies, and I introduced that space to my roommate. After we got settled, I showed her what my glucagon kit looked like, how to use it, and where to find it.

Hopefully, new roommates will be attentive to these steps. But if it’s not working out, a student shouldn’t be afraid to leverage the school’s roommate change policy. Many schools also allow single room requests, and some students with diabetes may prefer to have a space of their own to take care of diabetes. I had various beeps, late night blood sugar checks, and diabetes-related moments of insomnia, and my roommates were always understanding, even acting as a support system for me in those times of need. But not everyone is flexible, and it is important to act if this is the case. A big part of being at college is learning how to be proactive, especially with a chronic disease with Type 1 diabetes.

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Kirsten Myers is an intern with Insulin Nation. She is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, where she majored in Health & Societies with a Public Health concentration. She is currently taking pre-medical, post-baccalaureate courses at Portland State University, where she is President of the College Diabetes Network. She has been living with T1D for seven years.

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