University of Wollongong researchers will see Kiama through the eyes of people with dementia as part of a pilot project that will eventually be rolled out in communities across Australia.
The project aims to create "dementia-friendly" towns by looking at everything from the design of shopping malls, to the placement of signs, to the service given to the elderly at the bank.
Lead researcher Lyn Phillipson said Kiama's ageing population made it a perfect pilot site for the initiative, which is a collaboration of the university's Global Challenges Program, Alzheimer's Australia and Kiama council.
"Kiama has the highest proportion of people in their community of post-retirement age than any other region in the whole state," Dr Phillipson said.
"We know age is a risk factor for dementia.
"By the age of 65, the number of people with dementia is one in 10; by the age of 75, it's more like one in four.
"So we will see a huge increase in the number of people living with dementia in post-retirement boom towns like Kiama."
Dr Phillipson said the project, which complements Kiama council's healthy ageing strategy, would look at the way people with dementia interacted with their physical and social environments.
Researchers would take a hands-on approach; they would walk the streets with people with dementia to see which areas and services they struggled with.
"We will look at the way houses are designed, the way shopping centres and malls are designed, the way the public transport system services the area," she said.
"People with dementia have particular problems around memory, way finding and problem solving, so things like signage and design can be major issues.
"We'll also be looking at the social environment. When people get diagnosed with dementia, they're faced with a lot of negative attitudes and stigma.
"Public awareness of dementia is limited and people with dementia face a lot of frustration when trying to negotiate services in retail and service outlets."
Dr Phillipson said the research would lead to practical measures such as training guides for retail staff and improved streetscapes and signage.
"Our partnership with Alzheimer's Australia will see that the lessons we learn from the local community will be translated into resources and tools that can be used in communities across Australia," she said.
If people with dementia could be supported within their communities, fewer people would have no other choice but to end up in supported accommodation.