ROCKY is probably Ballarat's best value-for money employee. For him, a daily bowl of food and some milk is the cat's whiskers.
Yet the joy this furry feline brings to Ballarat Health Services' Eyres House clients is priceless.
"The clients adore him, he just melts into their laps," Eyres House co-ordinator June Forrester said.
The twist in the tail - excuse the pun - is that Rocky doesn't actually belong to the dementia respite and day centre's clients.
His nocturnal family home is just down the road but his daylight hours are spent at Eyres House dispensing free pet therapy.
Rocky's owner, Sarah Cuthbert, said they first moved into their home on the corner of Howitt and Ligar streets five years ago and immediately their other cat Solo sniffed out Eyres House.
However, after he was hit by a car two years ago, and Mrs Cuthbert and husband Henry had a baby, also called Henry, Rocky decided to leave them for plenty of pats and cuddles up the road.
"It works well," Mrs Cuthbert said.
"We see him every now and again and we know he is getting very well looked after.
"If we're out walking, he follows us home occasionally for pats but we really don't mind."
Mrs Cuthbert said she had even received a text message from a client thanking her for letting Rocky visit.
Ms Forrester and fellow Eyres House co-ordinator Carol Muller said Rocky was the first thing clients asked for on arrival.
"If he's not here, they ask where he is. It's therapy for them. He makes it like a home environment and relaxes them," Ms Forrester said.
Feeling at home, good company and a lot of fun are key at Eyres House, which has been operating from its historic Ligar Street building since 1988.
Starting with a small group of mostly elderly clients two days a week, the centre rapidly increased to four and then five days as demand grew.
Queen Elizabeth Centre social worker Kathy van Veldhuisen and volunteer Enid Gray - who is still an Eyres House fixture - visited Melbourne dementia facilities in
the late 1980s and modelled the region's fi rst dementia specific day centre on their findings.
Cottage, or weekend, respite was introduced in April 1991, caring for up to six clients at a time.
Today, the centre offers fortnightly cottage respite, its day centre program and a carers support group that meets on the second Tuesday of each month.
Two years ago, it introduced a program for younger clients with dementia, who attend two days a week.
Ms Muller said this program was initially a bit confronting because of the clients' ages, ranging from early 30s to 65.
"But the enjoyment and support this group give to each other is wonderful," Ms Muller said.
"We have social get-togethers with the clients and their families and this has also had a very positive effect for everyone."
To Ms Muller's knowledge, Eyres House is now offering the only program range of its kind in Victoria.
"These past 25 years have seen Eyres House support and care for many hundreds of clients and their families.
"There is fun, laughter, many stories, singing, dancing, support, kindness and caring, learning, challenges, encouragement, sadness and, above all, friendships and memories."
Carer Phil said the service provided to his mother was two-fold for his family.
"It provides respite from the full-time care," Phil said.
"And, the other side of it, which is very important, is that she is somewhere where she is cared for exceptionally well.
"They take a genuine interest in providing suitable activities for the clients.
"I feel very comfortable with mum there. I've never had any second guesses that she wasn't in the best place she could be."
Mary (not her real name) began caring for her partner three years ago after she was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease at just 59.
She is now a client in the younger program.
"I don't know where we'd be without this service to be honest," Mary said.
"Carol (Muller) has an extraordinary capacity to care, not just for the people with dementia, but their partners too.
"She is committed to providing a meaningful experience for the clients.
"It's an enormous relief to get some time out but also to know she is doing things that still keep her active."
Mary said all the younger clients had good relationships with each other, becoming like a little family.
"When your life is completely turned upside down, people who understand what it's like become a more important part of your life than some other relationships.
"We have a lot of things in common."
Mary said younger people with dementia, and their carers, had to learn a different set of skills but they were still all able to speak up for themselves and lead active
Mary's partner, for example, can still drive.
"Ballarat is really fortunate to have this service, and we all love the house. It's so gracious."
The magnificent Eyres House building is, itself, of historical signifi cance to Ballarat, complete with a basement ghost whose chilly aura has been felt by more than one staff member.
It was built between 1900 and 1905 by English mining magnate Joseph Bryant, who lived there initially with his first wife and then, after she died, a second wife and their seven children.
The house was originally on the outskirts of turn of the century Ballarat, took up the entire block between Gregory and Howitt streets and was named using the children's first initials. However, this original moniker has been lost over time.
The property included an elaborate front fence, a gully close to, or under, the house, a walled garden containing vegetables and fruit trees, gardens, paths, ponds and stables.
In 1916, former Ballarat mayor Arthur Stewart bought the house and renamed it Balmoral.
From about 1940, the property was home to Mr and Mrs Lewis and their two children until it was bought by the Queen Elizabeth Home in 1960 and renamed Eyres House in recognition of the well-known Ballarat philanthropist family.
Eyres House was a hostel for women with intellectual disabilities until it turned into its current incarnation in 1988.
Recently, the walled garden has been restored by staff, volunteers and clients into a very unique memory garden, which honours both a former staff member and a long-serving volunteer.
Paths, vegetable patches, old fruit trees, memory seats and a cute cuddling couple are all dotted through the garden, which the clients love to use during the warmer months.
"It's been a lot of hard work," Ms Muller said
"But the clients love to get out there and the BHS gardeners are all on board now too."
But Ms Muller and Ms Forrester both said the heart of Eyres House was its people.
"Eyres House is a beautiful old home that has a great history, but it is more than that," Ms Muller said.
"It's a place where people with dementia can be cared for and their families supported through this journey."