Thursday was a big day for John and Karen Somerville.
After 46 years of marriage, most of it spent in the family home in Macarthur, the couple were starting a new chapter of their lives.
Mrs Somerville, 66, became the first resident of Kambera House, a new home in the Tuggeranong suburbs for people with early onset dementia to receive care rather than go into a nursing home.
Mr Somerville, 71, is now facing a life at home for the first time without his wife, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease when she was 60.
"It's 46 years and suddenly she won't be there. But I feel relieved because she is going to get the help she deserves. I just can't give it to her by myself," he said.
"She's bored. She can't read. She can't write. She can't watch TV because she doesn't understand what's going on. It's very hard to talk to her because she has no idea what I'm talking about. There were times when she said she wanted to die."
It is also a new beginning for the couple's daughter, Julie Belmonte, who last year had to leave her job as a conveyancer to care for her mum full-time.
She said the family searched for an appropriate place for their mother, and believed Kambera House was like living in her own home, but with around-the-clock care. Mrs Somerville was free to follow her own schedule, including going to church, attending hydrotherapy classes and riding her recumbent bike because she had no problem with getting from A to B and didn't wander.
Her family could visit Mrs Somerville any time they liked. It was peace of mind for them.
"It's like a great weight has been taken off my shoulders," Mrs Belmonte said.
Kambera House, officially opened this week, is believed to be the first facility of its kind in Australia, catering specifically to people with early onset dementia, those diagnosed under the age of 65.
The six-bedroom house will provide permanent care or respite care to people with dementia, staffed 24-hours by registered nurses.
It is run by the not-for-profit organisation Community Home Australia, whose founder, Dr Rodney Jilek, an aged care consultant from Sydney, invested $1.2 million in Kambera House. The house in Gordon was purchased last December and completely renovated over four months.
"From what we understand, it's the first home that's been built specifically for people with early onset dementia," Dr Jilek said.
"And the reason we wanted to establish it is because those people end up in nursing homes. There was a gap between at-home care and residential care and there really wasn't anywhere for them to go."
Kambera House is being managed by registered nurse and gerontologist Nicole Smith, who ran the first Community Cafe in Canberra for people with dementia.
She said the high staff ratio meant staff could put in strategies to ensure people did not wander or were calmed during sundowning, when they may become agitated at the end of the day.
"We'll call their family every night at six if that's what they need or put on their favourite show from the 1950s. We're not leaving people to sit and suffer," she said. "We're not turning our back on them and telling them to go back to their room."
A maximum of seven people will live in the home, with five single bedrooms and one for a couple. Kambera House will also provide planned or emergency respite care, for as little time as a day if needed.
"We've set up as three permanent rooms with ensuites and three respite rooms which will share a big, disability-friendly bathroom," he said.
People with early onset dementia fall into National Disability Insurance Scheme funding. Dr Jilek said Kambera House won't require a bond and will charge a flat daily rate, most of which can be covered by NDIS funding.
The house has open bright spaces, nostalgic decor and even chickens in the backyard. There are no planned menus or scheduled activities. Each person will live as they want, right down to making each meal as they like.
Dr Jilek and Ms Smith hope the model of care will be replicated across Australia and they are planning more homes in Canberra.
"The residents actually get to control what happens to them. Because we are so small, the staff can do whatever the guest wants. Every person here will have a plan for them," he said.
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