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FA Center: ‘I need to take care of myself or I won’t be able to keep doing this.’ From hard knocks, a financial adviser now helps families with special-needs challenges

When Mary Anne Ehlert launched her financial planning career in 1989, she targeted an untapped niche: clients caring for a family member with special needs. She understood their situation because of her firsthand experience: Ehlert’s sister, Marcia, had cerebral palsy.

Financial planning for clients struggling with special-needs relatives takes both technical expertise and empathy for the unique challenges they face. Identifying with their hardships and providing emotional support are part of the job.

Caregivers battle anger, exhaustion and hopelessness. Overseeing the care of a loved one with physical disabilities, developmental disabilities or mental illness requires vast reserves of patience and resilience.

“You hear it a lot from caregivers, ‘I can’t do another minute of this,’” said Ehlert, a certified financial planner in Lincolnshire, Ill. “You figure you’re supposed to be strong. You can’t be weak. You can’t let anybody know.”

She remembers the day that she couldn’t take it anymore. As her family’s care needs accelerated, Ehlert felt overwhelmed. She fled to her garage and sat in her car. After about 15 minutes of sobbing, she had an epiphany.

“I’m a mess,” she realized. “I need to take care of myself or I won’t be able to keep doing this.”

Ehlert took steps to cope more effectively, starting with a newfound willingness to ask for help. “I set up a dream team,” she recalls, “asking each person to do this one piece.”

Examples included enlisting appropriate medical personnel, someone to handle legal issues and an advocate to manage caregiving. Given her financial planning skills, she became “the money person.” Her strategy worked well, and both Ehlert and her aging parents got relief from some of the burden.

Marcia died in 1995 at age 40. But Ehlert continues to apply the skills she learned: Her stepson struggles with mental health challenges, and she cared for her mother (dementia) and father (blind for the last eight years of his life due to macular degeneration).

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More than half of Ehlert’s financial planning clients have a loved one with special needs. She advises them to build a support network. “You have to have a go-to person who recognizes you’re in need,” she tells them. A friend who’s available on short notice to lend a hand — or just take you to lunch — can be a godsend.

Ehlert watched her parents devote themselves fully to Marcia’s care — and how it became too much. “I saw them worrying,” she said. “They didn’t take care of themselves financially or emotionally. They never wanted to go anywhere and take a trip. If you’re it, you think no one else can do it. No one can be you.”

Once you assemble a support team and define the roles, write it all down. That way, you maintain a record of who does what. Include contact information for each person and caregiving pointers that apply to each role.

“Write a playbook and keep updating it,” Ehlert said. “List the team. But also list what each team member needs to know” so that new helpers have clear instructions if you’re not around.

Separate from her practice, Ehlert founded Protected Tomorrows, a clearinghouse of information and resources for people caring for those with special needs. It offers workshops, webinars and educational tutorials.

“You feel sorry for yourself and get it out of your system,” Ehlert said. “Then you go back in. You develop grit.”

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Also read: Is it worth buying long-term care insurance? These three things will help you decide

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