The W&T permabloggers have some interesting discussions on the backlist. Sorry you can’t peek over our shoulders, but I’ll share a comment I made to a recent discussion. It’s sort of a follow-up to my post a couple of weeks ago, “How Old Is Too Old.” We were talking about the growing “generation gap” between senior LDS leaders and the younger cohort of Latter-day Saints, teens and twentysomethings. Then I went on sort of a tangent with the following long comment, slightly modified here:

This makes me think of the strange way members view older GAs. Lots of people have experience with older grandparents and parents who, as they move through their 70s, 80s, and 90s, lose some cognition, lose some awareness, become less interested in the world in general and more focused on simple things like seeing the grandkids, getting enough sleep, taking their meds, and not falling down the stairs. That’s all quite natural.

Somehow this is never applied to older GAs, who must, in the natural course of things, undergo the same changes in thinking and cognitive ability. Members steadfastly pretend that doesn’t happen to GAs, as if GAs are somehow impervious to aging. Members believe this against all evidence to the contrary, say when a President of the Church enters a declining dementia stage and is shuffled off to the margins while counselors act as president until the ailing president finally passes away.

The Church leadership, of course, facilitates and supports this belief. A GA who is failing is quietly marginalized: no more assignments or Conference talks, rarely seen in public. It only gets tricky when it’s the President that is in cognitive decline. GAs interact with the membership only in tightly controlled scenarios: a Conference talk or a stake conference or area conference visit. That helps maintain the fiction that they never hit cognitive decline. That God somehow miraculously preserves them. Except when He doesn’t.

As noted, this is no criticism of older General Authorities. Aging is a natural process and there’s nothing wrong with it. And certainly the attitude of most of the membership — to politely not notice some of those effects in senior leaders — is acceptable, even praiseworthy. But when it drifts into magical thinking, that somehow senior leaders are divinely preserved or even that it’s a sign of the True Church that older leaders never show signs of aging, that seems like a problem. Pretending things are better that they are also helps senior leadership avoid the sensitive issue that having senior leaders in their 80s and 90s affects overall leadership of the Church in a negative way. Pretending avoids having to discuss a change in LDS succession and tenure of senior leaders.

What do you think? I don’t really want detailed stories of your experience with a named senior leader who showed this or that lapse of memory or thinking. If you must share such an anecdote, keep it general. It’s the overall system and mindset that is the problem.

  • Do you think LDS leaders have a degree of immunity from the mental effects of aging that seem to afflict most other people as they age?
  • There is a selection bias that may benefit LDS leaders if one of the requirements to being called, particularly at the apostle stage, is to show surprisingly good health and unusually robust mental faculties. Those most likely to enter decline, however righteous or worthy or capable, are likely not called.
  • How “in touch” are senior leaders with that younger generation, teens and twentysomethings? Is the gap growing?
  • Have you seen this form of magical thinking among other members, that leaders are somehow preserved from the effects of aging? Maybe it’s more wishful thinking than magical thinking, like the widespread belief that the Word of Wisdom is a very good guide to healthy living or that paying tithing actually makes you richer.
  • No reflection here on the amazingly good health and mental acuity of President Nelson. If I’m that spry and mentally sharp at 96, I’ll consider myself terribly lucky.