I didn’t know the word ‘aphasia’ or what it meant until a dear long-time client was diagnosed with PPA a couple of years ago. I am writing this with her permission. I won’t give any identifying details.
It seems important to share this story for three reasons. I want to highlight tarot’s phenomenal abilities to be the tool we need, even under difficult circumstances. I want to share the tarot-teaching techniques that are working in this situation. I want to encourage tarot teachers to embrace sharing tarot with students who struggle with speech and language difficulties, dementia, or other neurological issues.
I will call my client ‘Jenny’. I’ve been conducting tarot readings for Jenny by phone for almost a decade now. I’ve only met her in person twice, when she happened to be visiting my area. On the first visit we did a reading. The second visit, just a month ago, I spent the day with her at her request, teaching her tarot. We have had two further tarot lessons by phone since then.
Jenny is a smart, active, dynamic woman. She was a life-long educator, and a leader in many community organizations. She travels the world, and always thinks to send me a present from wherever she visits.
Just as Jenny was planning her retirement, she received a startling diagnosis. Jenny has primary progressive aphasia, a form of dementia which is slowly robbing her of her speech and language abilities.
Jenny and I do short readings on a monthly basis. She calls it her ‘weather report’. As she was dealing with her diagnosis, her cards said that when a door closes a window will open. For Jenny, the opening window would be her intuition. What she would lose in human communication she would gain in communication with Spirit.
Over the past couple of years since her diagnosis Jenny has maintained an active lifestyle and is amazing her therapists with how well she is doing, despite the fact that her PPA is advancing. I can see evidence of its advance. I can also see evidence of how Jenny’s spiritual strength shines through. When she stumbles for a word and then finds it, she says, “Thank you, word, for being there for me”. When she can’t find a word she waits patiently, and one or the other of us figures it out.
When Jenny told me she was serious about learning tarot, I wondered how the aphasia would affect her ability to work with the cards, and my ability to teach. We both felt that tarot would be good for her. Yet, I harbored some misgivings. I knew I wouldn’t be able to teach her the way I would have prior to this cruel disease.
It was silly for me to doubt tarot’s ability to make itself understood to each person in accordance with their needs and abilities. All I had to do was be less didactic and more intuitive!
Years ago, Jenny, no doubt, could have become a truly talented professional tarot reader. Today, that is not what she needs to do. Tarot is versatile in its uses and has this amazing way of being the tool we need at the time, if only we will let it.
Today Jenny uses tarot to help her communicate with Spirit, and to help her with her language skills. They say a picture is worth a thousand words; that Jenny can use a picture to replace missing words helps her stay grounded and find her words. She tells me that pulling a card a day helps her focus on the positive things in her life. She also uses cards to create prayers and chants.
Sharing tarot with Jenny has taught me a lot, too. As a tarot teacher I tend to stress certain knowledge, traditions and practices. None of those things are important in this situation. What feels important is that this tool be accessible and useful to Jenny. Seeing how much tarot is helping her fills me with delight.
If you have the opportunity to teach tarot to a person with aphasia, or other neurological issues, don’t focus on what the student can’t do, focus on what they can do. Allow intuition, rather than structure and lesson plans, to guide your teaching.
Jenny has done very well staying focused on the Major Arcana only, although I have given her an overview of each of the seventy-eight cards. Usually I give a student a week or two to work with the Majors only, then I add the Minors in right away. In our last session we pulled cards to determine whether she should continue to work just with the Majors for a while. The answer was clear. The twenty-two keys are working well for her, and she is still absorbing their wisdom.
I have taught her the Majors as spiritual lessons. She embraces these lessons eagerly. Yet, she also sees herself and her situations in the cards. In our last lesson, she pulled the Magician and Justice. She saw herself as the Magician, and Justice as the fact that she is working with attorneys to correct a legal situation within her family. The cards helped her describe what was going on in a way that seemed much clearer than she might otherwise have been able to express. The cards, wonderful story-telling devices that they are, are helping Jenny retain her ability to talk about her life.
When it is time to add in the Minors, I will not add the entire Minor Arcana at once. I may add the Aces and Twos only, for example, let her get used to that, and proceed in that fashion.
Another difference in the way I am working with Jenny is that, after our first introduction to the cards, I am not asking her to study the cards in numeric order. Rather, I ask her to pull some cards at random for us to study. Then, I ask her to tell me which cards she has questions about.
I’ve given Jenny charts with keywords and interpretations which she relies on. I have not asked her to memorize the cards. Yet, she is able to look at the cards and the charts, and from there she can extrapolate a reading even better than many neurologically well students do.
Tarot is helping Jenny keep her language, stay positive as she battles her disease, and stay connected to Spirit.