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East Milton event sparked idea for suspense novel

Hallie Ephron, a longtime resident of Milton, comes from a family of distinguished writers. Her parents, Henry and Phoebe Ephron, wrote the screenplays for “Carousel” and “Desk Set.” Hallie grew up in Beverly Hills, the third of four talented sisters (Nora, Delia, Hallie, and Amy).

Before finding her voice in suspense writing, Hallie Ephron had several successful careers, including elementary school education, training teachers at Curry College, working in high tech, and freelance writing.

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“I’m a bridge person, going from steppingstone to steppingstone,” said Ephron. “Sometimes I don’t even know where I am going until I get there, but I have been fortunate I haven’t fallen in the water.”

Along the way, Hallie also met her physicist husband, settled in Milton, and became the mother of two daughters.

She recently sat down with me to discuss her newest page-turner, “There Was An Old Woman.” This elegantly crafted, character-rich suspense story is set in an aging neighborhood in the Bronx but was inspired by an incident in Ephron’s East Milton neighborhood.

The story focuses on the relationship between 91-year-old Mina Yetner and her neighbor’s thirtysomething daughter, Evie Ferrante.

When Evie receives a frantic call from her sister to care for their hospitalized and estranged alcoholic mother, she drops her work and goes to her mother’s home.

There, Evie discovers a house filled with debris, as well as a huge pile of cash and a new flat-screen TV. She also learns that more than a few homes in this once quaint community are being demolished, when longtime owners suddenly disappear or die. Mina still has her home, but her nephew is trying to force her to move into a nursing facility.

The unlikely friendship of Mina and Evie ultimately becomes the only weapon against a plot that threatens to destroy a community as well as a precious piece of the past.

Ephron recalled how she got the idea for the novel.

“One Sunday, I heard a siren and discovered that my elderly neighbor [in Milton] was found lying ill in her house, which had fallen into total disrepair. As a mystery writer, I wondered, “What if no one knew how it got that way?” Ephron said. “She was not an alcoholic, but I imagined she could easily have become prey, like Mina Yetner.”

The resulting novel “weaves together both actual history about New York City and fiction,” said Ephron.

It also deftly raises the issue about older adults’ vulnerability to people seeking to take advantage of them.

Ephron highlights the impact of alcoholism, misplaced trust, increased isolation, and cognitive loss as factors that make seniors susceptible to predatory schemes.

In addition, she said, “I think older adults become very fearful of becoming a burden and losing independence if they disclose memory problems or confusion.”

From my viewpoint as a psychologist, there is another, equally compelling, factor affecting seniors: For older individuals with progressive neurodegenerative syndromes such as Parkinson’s Disease or Alzheimer’s, there is a common but underdiagnosed behavioral impairment known as “apathy syndrome.”

Apathy syndrome is marked by loss of or diminished interest in all things external; loss or diminished self-initiative; and little, if any, emotional expression.

Older adults suffering from this syndrome become detached from matters that significantly affect their lives. Self-initiated behavior and curiosity may diminish or completely disappear. As such, managing finances and household affairs and making or communicating choices become seriously impeded.

Moreover, researchers have found that this state can also result in impulsive behavior, and may be the prelude to a more serious dementia.

As a consequence, older adults may withdraw, become unable to distinguish whom to trust, or be unwilling or unable to disclose information to caregivers or family about outside phone calls or predatory schemes.

Though this all sounds a bit dark, Ephron’s novel treads lightly and still manages to convey important messages.

“This book is about entertainment, after all,’’ she said. “However, I also hope readers will see that older adults bring a lot of valuable dimension to a relationship, and play an important role in helping preserve the past.”

Nancy Harris can be reached at dr.nancy23@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @DrNancy_Globe.
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