With the sorrowful passing of two Apostles, once again the subject of age of the leadership has been brought up. The calling of one Prophet or Apostle to replace another is accompanied by the term gerontocracy. This is the idea that the leadership is much older than the general population. Yes this is true, but the attitude expressed by those reporting it often has a critical tone. This criticism does at times become a mocking accusation that none of them are fit for the position. There is a thinly veiled stereotype of sickly isolated curmudgeon set in their ways.
Reporters and those outside of Mormonism aren’t the only ones who think negatively of the ages. Many critics inside the LDS Church, and especially those who want to see a more lenient or worldly moral and theological change, feel the General Authorities are too old. They argue that the higher ages stifle innovation and perhaps keep revelation to a minimum. Younger leadership, they often argue, would see things differently and more expansive.
A pastime for both the faithful and those who aren’t as orthodox is to guess how many years a General Authority has to live and then who will take their place, Whole charts have been developed to see who is oldest and youngest among them, and then make educated guesses who will make it to the Presidency of the Church. Death of the leadership has become something of an obsession.
There were times when the President of the LDS Church was too incapacitated for daily participation. Pres. Spencer W. Kimball had long stretches where he couldn’t function and actually wished to be released, although the Lord had other plans. His own two counselors were feeble enough that Gordon B. Hinckley, who would later become President, was called to assist them. His successor Pres. Ezra T. Benson also had many years of inactivity due to age, with a semi-famous grandson who resigned membership saying his grandfather was taken advantage of by using his name. Currently an unsubstantiated rumor has been floating around that President Monson has mental difficulties because of age, with the implication he can’t perform his calling as prophet. These examples are not always what happens as the Prophet’s grow older. Many of them work hard right up until the end of life when they suddenly pass away. The Presidents Lee and Hunter had short administrations with little expectation they wouldn’t live longer.
Perhaps most of this ageism comes from the Western ideal that youth and beauty are to be celebrated. The saying “you can’t teach old dogs new tricks,” has the meaning that the older someone is then the less likely they are to understand the knewest knowledge. Instead of showing respect and dignity for the older years, there comes shame at wrinkles and hiding seniors away in “old folks homes” to await death. Studies have found that the life expectancy of an older person in these “homes” is lower than direct family care. Yet for families who can’t or most likely don’t want to be responsible for aging parents, it becomes necessary to have them taken care of somehow. Often they end up neglected, forgotten, and poorly treated by minimum wage caretakers.
During the long running science fiction series Star Trek: The Next Generation there was an episode where an old scientist reaches the age of life retirement. This isn’t where they give up whatever occupation they have, but are expected to commit suicide. Feeling he had much more to accomplish to save his world from dying, and with Captain Picard agreeing, the older gentleman accepts asylum for a time. In the end the man returns to his planet knowing that all his research will do no good. His people wouldn’t accept the research no matter how much it might save them, because they insist seniors are a burden on society.
There are other cultures where low opinions of old people are rare. Many Native American tribes see the Elders as a fountain of knowledge able to pass down to the younger generations. Asian cultures are taught to respect those who are older and take them in to care for them in the way they did their own children. To abandon aging parents is a dishonor to the person who shoves them aside. In India the grandfathers and grandmothers are considered the head of the home. They are sought out for advise and final life decisions. Western history isn’t always consistent with old age disrespect as ancient Roman considered them wise and worthy of leadership positions, so long as they had a virtuous life. Some of this has changed in the modern age as the negative Western attitudes about seniors has taken root.
Other than to those who believe that drastic and necessary change is desired, the history of LDS leadership proves that age doesn’t keep the Church held back and in turmoil. There are many fail safes built into the Priesthood organization, starting at the top with the First Presidency. Inspired “committees” are formed to act as support among each member. The Prophet is supported by two counselors, who are followed by 12 men known as Apostles holding the same keys if the other three are incapacitated or dissolved. There are the Quorum of the Seventies comprising of Area Authorities who report to the other higher office holders. A scaffolding is in place to make sure all Church ecclesiastical and other business are well maintained. Above all, it isn’t the President’s or the Apostle’s Church. It is under the direction and protection of the Lord Jesus Christ who died and now has Eternal Life. The Priesthood itself is without beginning of days or end of years and therefore will survive long after everyone grows old.