Simon McDermott's father is experiencing dementia, but still remembers the songs he used to sing

By Jason Duaine Hahn
September 18, 2018 03:16 PM
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Simon McDermott’s earliest memories of his father, Ted, are of him getting dressed in his best to sing in the local clubs around their home in Britain. The lifelong singer was loved throughout the area, and people would line up around the block to hear Ted sing. Many of his shows would end with the audience cheering on their feet, asking for more.

But, now in his golden years, Ted is suffering from Alzheimer’s, an incurable progressive disease that has slowly taken his memory since symptoms first appeared in 2011.

“He no longer knows who we are, doesn’t know where he lives, has forgotten that he was married or has a son,” Simon, 42, tells PEOPLE. “Dad often repeats himself constantly and spends hours walking around the house calling our names and looking for us, even though we are there, he doesn’t believe we are who we are.”

Alzheimer’s is a type of dementia that is ranked as the sixth leading cause of death in the United States for older people, according to the National Institute on Aging. Its early symptoms vary from person to person, but they typically include cognitive impairment, having difficulty finding words, spatial issues and impaired judgment.

“Life with Alzheimer’s changes every single day. Each day there are new challenges,” says Simon, from Blackburn, Lancashire, England. “As soon as you get used to one set of behaviors, something changes and then you’re right back at the start trying to learn how to deal with it.”

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Ted, singing in his younger days
| Credit: Simon McDermott

For Ted, some of the first signs seven years ago were of him forgetting names and places, which his wife, Linda, was the first to notice. Then, he increasingly became verbally and physically aggressive.

“It was off the scale some days. When I went up to visit I would often put my suitcase against the door, as he would often come into my bedroom in the middle of the night attacking me because he thought I was a stranger in his house,” Simon says of his father, who was officially diagnosed in 2013. “Though, sometimes, I would find him standing over me and he would for a moment recognize me — and we would both scare the life out of each other.”

Linda and Simon soon noticed that the devastating disease seemed to take another one of Ted’s defining qualities: his taste in music.

As Simon tried to figure out a way to limit his mother’s exposure to Ted’s aggression, he often resorted to taking his father out on long drives through the countryside. It was during one of these outings that Simon put on one of Ted’s old backing tracks, which he used to sing to many years ago, and something amazing happened.

“I played them and his character changed — he finally started smiling again and was less aggressive,” Simon recalls. “It became a thing that we did. Each time Dad was showing signs of aggression I’d take him out on a long drive. As well as making him happier we became very close and we would talk about everything and nothing with each other.”

Though Ted couldn’t remember the names of his family members, he was able to summon the lyrics he used to sing so long ago.

“It was a special time for us both, even though he had no idea I was his son,” says Simon.

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Credit: Simon McDermott

To document these moments, Simon began recording their drives and uploading them to a YouTube channel he created, which he called The Songaminute Man, a reference to the nickname his father picked up in his youth for his ability to recall so many songs from memory. Many of the videos — which resemble James Corden‘s “Carpool Karaoke” segment on The Late Late Show — gained thousands of views.

The popularity of the channel inspired Simon to write a book of the same name, which documents his father’s life, and his own journey as a caretaker. Thanks to Ted’s newfound fame, he won a contract with Decca records and made his first single at the age of 80. Then, in 2016, Simon and Ted were given the Pride of Britain Award thanks to their raising $197,000 for the Alzheimer’s Society.

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The Songaminute Man
| Credit: Simon McDermott

Looking back on what he has learned throughout the ordeal, Simon wants other caretakers to remain optimistic and strong for their loved ones.

“Don’t be alone. There are thousands of people around the world who are and who have gone through the same thing you are going through,” he says. “Some people think that being diagnosed with dementia is the end of life. Try not to think like that. Think of it more as a different chapter of life. It can be a challenge — dare yourself to take it on.”