The music begins and the showman appears.
With his rich, deep bass, Ted McDermott launches into one of the hundreds of songs he knows by heart – a feat that once earned him the moniker “The Songaminute Man.” With a flourish of his hand and an occasional “Big finish!,” he punctuates the performances that have won him a devoted following around the world.
In the past month alone, videos of him singing have been viewed more than a million times on YouTube and Facebook, sparking a global phenomenon made all the more remarkable by the fact that McDermott, 80, has Alzheimer’s disease and performs most of his tunes while being driven around his hometown in England by his son, Simon “Mac” McDermott, who gamely sings along.
At the same time, the “Songaminute Man” phenomenon has raised more than £114,000 – more than $150,000 – for the Alzheimer’s Society while raising awareness of the challenges faced by families dealing with a loved one with dementia.
In an interview with the Ponte Vedra Recorder, Simon McDermott said he initially recorded the videos to share his father’s voice before Alzheimer’s robbed him of his lifelong singing ability.
“I wanted people to hear my dad’s voice,” he said. “My fear was that my dad would just die and he wouldn’t get recognized; that’s why I shared the videos. I wanted people around the world to hear my dad’s voice and it’s like a hundred thousand times what I expected.”
Connecting through music
To watch the Songaminute Man videos on YouTube, it’s hard to believe that the vibrant elderly gentleman belting out show tunes and Sinatra standards has Alzheimer’s, or to fully appreciate the challenges his loved ones have faced in dealing with his illness. It was five years ago, son Simon said, that he first became concerned about his father’s failing memory.
“I came home for Christmas and I’d given my dad a book on Nelson Mandela,” he recalled. “I was washing up and he came into the kitchen and said, ‘Who bought that book?’ I said, ‘I did, Dad, it’s your Christmas present.’ Then two minutes later, he asked me the same question. And then he did it about 10 times. That was the first time it really upset me.”
Before long, the forgetfulness escalated to bouts of anger and violence, as the elder McDermott began not to recognize those around him.
“It was terrifying,” Simon said. “I would put my suitcase against the door – I was terrified of falling asleep and that my dad would come in, forget who I was and attack me.”
As his father’s condition deteriorated, Simon decided to try and record a CD of him singing to give to family members at Ted’s 80th birthday party. At first, the recording session didn’t go well.
“He kept taking the head phones off, storming out,” he said. “Then I said, ‘Let’s just try it one more time’ and he just came back – the showman was back again.”
Soon, Simon was taking his father on regular drives around town, singing along with him to such popular standards as “You Make Me Feel So Young,” “On the Street Where You Live” and “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.” The video of father and son singing “Quando, Quando, Quando” alone has since been viewed more than 1.3 million times.
More importantly, since his father started singing regularly again, Simon said, the episodes of anger have decreased significantly.
“The aggression is more or less gone,” he said. “The music helps him feel happier, definitely. I think it’s because it’s given him his passion back.”
Simon also credits his mother, Linda, for her steadfast care for his father.
“My mum is the rock, she’s with my dad 24/7,” he said. “I’m the guy who turns up and drives my dad around a bit.”
Fundraising for Alzheimer’s
When the videos of his father singing started getting hundreds – and then thousands – of likes and views online, Simon decided to add a fundraising link (www.justgiving.com/fundraising/songaminute) in the hope he might raise a few hundred pounds for the Alzheimer’s Society, which supported him during the most difficult times of his father’s illness. In addition to seeking advice from the organization’s online forums, Simon credits its help line staff with providing the support the family needed to cope.
“I was in a really bad place and (the helpline) really helped me realign myself,” he said. “I just wanted to put something back, because if that hadn’t been there for me, who would I have turned to?”
In addition to raising hundreds of thousands of dollars, the Songaminute videos have garnered thousands of comments and emails from people around the world, thanking both Simon and Ted for sharing their Alzheimer’s journey and brightening the lives of others.
“Please keep going – fantastic what you and your dad have achieved,” one Facebook follower wrote. “You both have brought a lot of joy into people’s lives with your singing. I hope your dad has many more years of singing. You are both an inspiration.”
The outpouring of love and support the family has received, Simon said, is more than he ever could have imagined.
“It feels really humbling,” he said, “especially with what we’ve gone through before and I didn’t see a light at the end of the tunnel.”
And while Ted still has good days and bad, he added, the bad days are tempered by the knowledge that his father’s voice has reached millions while forging a legacy of renewed hope and caring for others facing the same challenges.
“My dad was always known as The Songaminute Man,” he said, “and now he’ll forever be known as The Songaminute Man.”