Documentary shows the positive side to Alzheimer’s

Documentary maker Sarah McCoy tells COLETTE SHERIDAN about wanting to share a positive story about living with Alzheimer’s
Documentary shows the positive side to Alzheimer’s

Gerald Linehan with Sarah McCoy, who worked at Ballincollig Community Nursing Home, while she attended college in UCC

BALLINCOLLIG woman Sarah McCoy has made a documentary with a difference. The 23-year-old UCC graduate found a great subject in Listowel-born Gerald Lenihan.

The father of rugby commentator and columnist, Donal Lenihan, Gerald has had quite an eventful life. He was a great friend of the late playwright, John B Keane, and was a well known boxer and GAA man who played hurling with Jack Lynch and Christy Ring when he moved to Cork.

Now, Gerald, a former carpenter, going on 90, lives in Ballincollig Community Nursing Home.

For Gerald, who has Alzheimer’s disease, his memories of times past are reasonably sharp but he finds it hard to remember more recent events. However, he remains cheerful and talkative. It was these qualities that drew Sarah to Gerald. While at UCC, where she studied commerce and Irish, Sarah worked part time at the nursing home where Gerald is a resident.

“When he came in, three years ago, he was very chatty,” says Sarah, who is based in Dungarvan. “Some of the residents won’t communicate with you so it’s hard to build a relationship with them. But Gerald was always on for the craic. That’s how I built my friendship with him.

Gerald Linehan with his son Donal.
Gerald Linehan with his son Donal.

“His Alzheimer’s is after getting slightly worse since coming into the nursing home but it’s not severe and he’s happy in himself. He talks away about his life. That made me want to make a documentary about him because he has all these memories and is able to recount all the old stories up to a certain point.”

Sarah, who has a higher diploma in TV and digital media productions, run by Waterford Institute of Technology in association with Nemeton TV and Udarás na Gaeltachta, also wanted to make a film that deals with the issue of Alzheimer’s “in a nice way”.

As part of her TV and digital media course, she directed, produced and edited it herself. She submitted her documentary, Cuimhin Liom’/I remember to the Guth Gafa competition where students from all over Ireland enter short documentaries in the areas of human rights and social and environmental issues. While Sarah didn’t win the competition, she was delighted to enter it and is hoping that her film will be screened on TG4.

Gerald Linehan and his wife Chris.
Gerald Linehan and his wife Chris.

It’s described as “a touching, intimate and surprisingly humorous portrait of Gerald Linehan as he and his (Ballincollig-based) family come to terms with his Alzheimer’s.”

The documentary is 70% Irish and 30% English. “Obviously, there are people in it who don’t have the cúpla focail,” says Sarah.

In making her film, Sarah had to be “very careful as it’s a delicate subject. Once I spoke to Gerald’s daughter, Jo McGrath, about making the documentary, I had to get permission from the nursing home to film there.

“I had to be careful with my shots so that the faces of the other residents wouldn’t be shown. Some of the nurses in the home are in the documentary. I put a lot of thought into it before I started shooting. The documentary kind of highlights Alzheimer’s in a nice way. Everybody has a negative opinion on nursing homes. But I wanted to show that Gerald is happy.

“I wanted to raise issues. It’s not the end of the world if a family member has to go into a nursing home. You are still a member of your family. Gerald recognises his family. His face lights up when they come in to see him. He knows exactly who they are.”

Billy Keane, John B Keane's son
Billy Keane, John B Keane's son

John B Keane’s son, Billy, talks about knowing Gerald when he was growing up.

“Gerald and John B were the best of friends. They did everything together. Billy talks about John B’s pub where Gerald would be given the floor to sing.”

Sarah, who now works as an assistant producer with Nemeton TV, spent four years studying for her degree at UCC. In her third year, she did a placement with Nemeton TV.

“That’s how I found out about the course. I was interning with the course leader. I decided that when I was finished my commerce degree, I would do the TV course. I didn’t know then what I wanted to do. I knew I didn’t want to be sitting down doing accounting or tax or any of those kinds of things. The degree was just a general degree for me. I love Irish, so when I was on placement, the Irish side (was to the fore) rather than the business side.”

It was the start of a career that Sarah is passionate about. She says she would love to produce her own programmes.

Her documentary is now in the hands of TG4 who are considering it for broadcast. Sarah isn’t concerned about the limited audience that a mostly Irish language documentary might attract. “TG4 is such a fan base for the Irish language, between sports and documentaries. I did it mostly through Irish for a reason. Listowel has connections with the Irish language and Billy Keane does his interview in Irish. It’s nice when people have the Irish language.”

Sarah McCoy at the premier of her documentary.
Sarah McCoy at the premier of her documentary.

And there are subtitles for non-Irish speakers.

Sarah feels strongly about the Irish language, saying that she agrees with it being compulsory at school.

“It’s part of our culture and heritage. I’d be sickened if I didn’t have the Irish language. It’s so nice to be able to speak it. It’s our own language at the end of the day.

“All the people that I know who don’t have Irish are annoyed that they didn’t actually put more effort into it at school. Now, they wish they had Irish. But it’s not too late. There needs to be a change in the way it is taught.”

Sarah attended Gael Colaiste Choilm in Ballincollig.

Asked how she feels about RTÉ looking for an increased TV license fee from the public, Sarah admits she doesn’t really watch TV anymore, favouring Netflix and watching online programmes: “Sometimes, you see something on social media advertising a programme that’s going to be on television that night. Then, I would watch it on television.

“Promoting things online with little snippets of the programme is one way of getting people to watch television.”

And well-made documentaries dealing with the lives of interesting characters (like Gerald Lenihan) will always sell. Or so Sarah hopes.

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