SOUTH PORTLAND — Because of a neuromuscular disorder, Alice James has had some spectacular falls.
Her body goes rigid and spastic, propelling her through the air and onto her head, jamming her skull into her spinal column. Once she was knocked unconscious for 25 minutes and broke her collarbone.
“I remember the bounce and nothing else,” James said recently. “If I reached for something, or my eyes were looking for the phone, the second my body weight would start shifting, I couldn’t center it back, and I would fall really hard.”
Anyone who has learned to ride a bike knows that your body will follow where your eyes look, but for people with balance and stability issues, this can be dangerous.
“Prevention is the name of the game,” James said. “You hit your head once, and life alters a little bit to one side, and often you don’t go back to baseline.”
James, who is an author, artist and human rights activist, started investigating falls. She found that most fall prevention programs focus on good lighting and railings, keeping floors free of clutter, and doing exercises to improve balance. She realized one crucial aspect was missing – maintaining core stability.
So James went to Goodwill and bought a long canvas belt and some small purses with sequins and rhinestones. She strung them on the belt. Now her keys, phone, and medications would always be at her waist and she wouldn’t have to reach or bend for them.
From the funky, bulky prototype, her idea for the Libertybelt was born. After a year’s development, the Libertybelt is now a sleek, sturdy canvas personal organizer designed to be worn around the waist. It features two front flap pockets with Velcro tabs and a double inner pocket with a water-resistant nylon lining.
“I don’t have to look down when I use it, and I haven’t had a fall since wearing the belt,” James said. “The pressure and weight gives me a better sense of where my torso is.”
The other two members of the Libertybelt Co. are Susan Jensen of North Yarmouth and Sharon Morgenstein of Portland. They founded Art Play Nursery School on Allen Avenue in Portland in 1980. Morgenstein is still the director, and Jensen has taught there for 15 years.
Morgenstein is in charge of Libertybelt customer relations and product promotion. James is the visionary, and Jensen is the seamstress and designer. “I rough out the sketch, and Susan is the refiner and color coordinator,” James said.
The team has been working with a local fabricator, and is in discussions with the Maine Correctional Center’s women’s stitching workshop in South Windham for mass production. Alice had a stroke last week, and spent several days in the hospital, but said it didn’t stop her from going to the prison to talk about production.
Contracting with the prison is important to the company.
“One of the points of this was to do a business project in Maine this year, when everyone said it can’t be done,” James said. “… The women coming out of jail will have a skill. If we start our own small fabrication workshop, they will be trained and ready to go. People feel hopeless in jail, and don’t know where to turn.”
The stitching workshop is part of a rehabilitation program. The women get supervision, learn about quality control and structure. “They can feel that they are helping elderly people by producing the belt. What goes around, comes around,” James said.
The Libertybelt slogan is “Don’t stay home without it” – and for good reason. Approximately 78 percent of people fall in or near their home, according to a National Health Interview survey, and falls are the leading cause of accidental deaths among adults age 65 and over, according to the U.S. Center for Disease Control.
Falls account for 70 percent of all emergency room admissions among older adults, and 40 percent of all nursing home placements. As this population continues to age, medical facilities and families alike will need comprehensive fall prevention plans.
James, Jensen and Morgenstein hope the Libertybelt will become as useful as a seat-belt, a low-cost investment, to help avoid the increasing costs of ER visits and hospital stays.
Adventuresome by nature, James hasn’t let her disability, stroke or a cancer diagnosis slow her down.
“People should be encouraged to be more creative when they are disabled,” she said. “Focus on the problem, come up with as many solutions as you can, and don’t quit.”
James has also just released a memoir, “Nowish: A Life Out of Time,” published under her pen name, Alice Mead: “It’s the story of how I got to this point, how I lost my health, marriage, house, health care. At 42, I became ill. At 52 I found myself living with 88-90 year olds in an elder care facility, getting sicker. … It’s been a tough ride, but my sense of humor in dire situations helps pull me through.”
The Libertybelt helps keep essential items close by.