Is Unmarried Sex Okay for the Elderly?

I just recently received an e mail which asked a question about sexual fornication (unmarried sex) and elderly people. Here are the main points of this e mail, which I have partly edited:

'I know an elderly pastor whose wonderful daughter has never married because she has devoted herself to caring for him (the man became a widower 25 years ago). ...This man's daughter is now about 63 but still quite pretty. About 2 years ago she fell in love with a widower of about 68 and they are now very close. The daughter still feels that she must avoid marriage because of her father's illnesses and his need of her.
The pastor, who is now semi-retired though he still preaches, encourages his daughter and her male friend (both Christians, of course), to take occasional holidays together. I asked her about this and she clearly told me that "full sexual love" (as she called it) would be part of any holiday which they shared. She said, "Look, we are not young and we both have heart problems with a life expectancy of about 5-7 years. I could have married several times when I was younger but I wanted to look after my father - can anyone begrudge me this wonderful joy which has come so late in life?"
This got me thinking - Is it okay for older people to have unmarried sexual relations as long as cheating and adultery is not involved? The girl's father is a very wise old minister, part of the 'old school' - he condones his loyal and faithful daughter's late love affair...'

My Reply:

The short answer is that sexual immorality is bad - for both young and old, however, there certainly are differences. The specific point raised is a surprisingly hard question to answer! First of all, my thought was that perhaps you should not have even passed this confidential information on to me, but then I figured, well, as long as no names are mentioned this might not be a bad question to answer since I always believe that when somebody asks me a question, a few hundred other people have the same (or a similar) question but don't ask.

Sexual immorality is not good - far from it - yet I actually feel that this elderly minister could be showing very good judgment, plus outstanding compassion here. He will know, of course, that he is the reason that his daughter never married. He will also know that both the daughter and her 68 year old male friend have heart problems which may mean they don't have many years left. He appears to be saying to his ailing daughter, 'Just go ahead and enjoy the wonderful love affair which you have deserved for so long!' Is he wrong? No, I believe he is showing marvellous love, discretion and judgment! I cannot condemn him in this matter.

So am I saying that unmarried sex is fine for older people? Absolutely not! But I think that wisdom and compassion are also important factors at times in some of these less common situations. We always strive to see the young developing good sexual character and always stress the great importance of marriage (alas, all too often they don't seem to listen!), this is good and correct since we don't want them to make horrendous mistakes in their moral lives. There is also the factor that the young tend to copy and to learn from each other, so it is always important to stress fine moral character and the serious need to avoid promiscuous sexual behaviour. But with a couple who may not have a long life expectancy and for whom marriage presents real problems - as long as both are unmarried and unattached - I think it is possible to be a little more lenient. Make no mistake: marriage is best! But it would depend on the couple and on their character and on their sexual drive. Without question some older couples no longer consider the purely sexual side of love to be so important, yet for others it will still be a drive which will seek satisfaction. Obviously unwanted pregnancy is also not a factor in the case of older lovers. However, in all such cases, discretion and the avoidance of setting a poor example before younger Christians is absolutely vital.

So, to sum this all up, I am a great believer in marriage and my wife and I have had a happy marriage for thirty years! We must always teach the principle of faithful Christian marriage; but having said all of that, I do not believe that sexual acts occurring outside of marriage are the unforgivable sin. I will go further: I believe that occasional adulterous acts also occur within more Christian marriages than few would ever wish to admit! Of course, if those are indeed "Christian marriages" repentance will have certainly occurred. Regarding this society, we cannot close our eyes to the fact that quite possibly a majority of people now believe that sexual intercourse outside of marriage is perfectly normal and the regular practice as long as one tries to be discrete and not to hurt anyone. 50 years ago it was believed that only "scrubbers" allowed pre-marital sex and that a formal engagement was the minimum requirement for eager young men, but society has changed and standards of sexual behaviour are well short of where they once stood. Of course, the modern standard is not the Christian standard but it is the accepted standard all around us and we would like to see many of these people eventually come to Christ, who has a supremely forgiving heart.

However, regarding this older Christian couple with a not very good life expectancy including this faithful daughter who has sacrificed her best years in order to care for her widower father, I think that I would (in common with the girl's father), wish them every blessing in their very late love affair.

I bumped into this lady by sheer chance circa 2009, I am delighted to be able to report that this couple are now indeed very happily married.

In 2012 I was contacted by a gentleman who took me to task about my liberal approach in this brief 'answer to a question.' I told him that I would re-check this explanation in case I erred somewhere. I have done that but, on balance, I still stand by what I wrote back in 2006. We should not be too legalistic or condemning in some of these areas.
Robin A. Brace, 2006. (Updates added in September, 2012).