Joel Rosenau taught English for most of his life.
Now he’s learning how to read it again – with a lot of help from the game show, Jeopardy!
The retired teacher suffered a series of strokes in September of 2019, and as a result, lost the ability to read.
But he has turned his favourite game show into a learning tool.
He uses the game clues that are shown on the television screen as reading material. He pauses his recording, works through the clue, then plays it to hear the show’s host, Alex Trebek, reading it.
It can take Rosenau quite a long time to work through a single clue. But he is determined.
“I put myself through levels. When I started this [six weeks ago], I was at a kindergarten level,” said the 76-year-old. “Now I am up somewhere in Grade 1. I am just getting started in the English language again.”
Rosenau’s teaching career began in Campbell River. From there he spent a couple of years teaching in Jamaica, before returning to the Island – Nanaimo – where he spent the last 30 years of his career, in School District 68.
He and his wife, Yvonne, moved to the Comox Valley after retirement, in 2015.
Joel’s health issues in September began with a visit to a walk-in clinic, complaining of nausea. Upon his return visit, three days later, the clinic doctor sent him straight to the hospital.
The exact time of the strokes is unclear, but Joel and Yvonne believe they happened on Sept. 23 – the day he was admitted into hospital.
“That is my sense of it,” said Yvonne. “Before [Sept. 23] he was sick, but he was still able to recognize things, carry on a conversation. By [Sept. 24] he had a lot of physical problems, like balance, and being able to walk. He could talk, but he was unable to read, or recognize symbols.”
“I remember when it came to me what my problem was,” said Joel. “You know the boards in hospital rooms that say ‘My name is ______’ and ‘My doctor is _____.’ For the next 10 days in the hospital, I kept trying to read it and I just couldn’t. I was totally without reading ability. I could speak, but I could not deal whatsoever with printed material. When I got home, I couldn’t even recognize the letters of the alphabet.”
He said it was a tough condition to accept, and just as hard to find a solution.
“I was pretty inactive for the first little while, because I didn’t feel like I was getting anywhere. I was looking for sources of audio, but I found that audio wasn’t enough. So I wanted audio and visual, so I could see the letters – see the words, but also hear them. And this way [watching Jeopardy!], I can see the print, pause [the recording], and read it out myself, then hear Alex read it, to [reaffirm].”
The irony of the situation is not lost on Joel. For years, he was teaching children how to read. Now he has to use those same tools to teach himself the same skill.
“I know how hard it is for children to learn to read,” he said. “Now, when I apply the rules I used to teach them, when I apply those rules to myself, it makes everything that much more meaningful.
Joel said he still has the ability to spell – he can write down notes, but can’t often read what he writes.
“It’s frustrating at times, but I consider it an occupation – it’s a way to pass the time.”
Joel said this training method is something that works for him, but is not suggesting it is a cure for the condition.
“Hopefully, this story will inspire people, but not mislead them into thinking this is a magical cure, because it is not a magical cure,” said Joel. “Jeopardy is a fun thing to do, but you don’t learn how to read – or how to do anything – without an awful lot of work.”
He’s hoping to set up a website, “Rosenau’s Recoveries,” where he can help others suffering similar issues.
While Yvonne recognizes that Joel is now well on the road to recovery, she’s grateful for the support from the community immediately following his stroke.
“For those two months after he’d had it, I was totally overwhelmed,” she said. “I appreciated so much, my neighbours, my friends, our church, my family, who came to give me added support. People would drop off casseroles, or food, so I didn’t have to think about cooking – that was very helpful. The amount of medical appointments alone was nuts. As many as four per day.”
And now, she’s grateful to a well-known Canadian for helping with the teaching.
“Thank you, Alex Trebek,” she said.