POST-MENOPAUSAL CONFIDENCE. Gerontologist, feminist scholar and author Peg Cruikshank is a lecturer in women's studies and faculty associate of the Center on Aging at the University of Maine. Her new book is Learning to be Old: Gender, Culture and Aging (Rowman & Littlefield, $22.95).

Cruikshank sheds light on a particular bias inherent in studying this country's burgeoning aging population and asks why unlike gender, race and sexual orientation--identities that have been reinterpreted as socially constructed phenomena--aging is still seen through physically constructed lenses. Her book follows on the heels of her anthology of literature on the subject, Fierce With Reality, and her quintessential reader, The Gay and Lesbian Liberation Movement.

Cruikshank suggests inhabiting your age.

"What that means is that you're comfortable with where you are in life, that you have no urgency to get plastic surgery or even to stop doing the things that you've always done," she says.

That might mean you actually check out the activities at your neighborhood senior center. "There might be something of interest there other than just the dreaded old people," Cruikshank quips.

"To me the more interesting part of aging isn't the physical change, but everything else--the assumption of prejudice, the power of conservative politics, the social contract with the aging--which, by the way, the Bush administration is eroding."

Economics comes into play as well, Cruikshank says. "The right wing agenda wants us to think the epidemic of aging is dangerous. There are rabid fears that an aging population will bankrupt our resources. But really there's another side to these fears that they fail to notice, and that's a decline in the fertility rate. That's a good thing for the population."

Cruikshank studied various cultures and how they deal with their aging citizens and found that you can't generalize.

"We're an individualistic society compared with some cultures who embrace and accept dependence," she says.

But here in the West, old people generally live by themselves. Some women even convince themselves that they're happy being alone, being the more-commonly widowed spouse.

"Maybe they've merely made a gutsy adjustment to a reality that may or may not work for them," Cruikshank wonders.

It's aging women that make up a chunk of Cruikshank's research.

"I'm worried that we're going to end up with a large, unpaid labor force consisting of middle-aged or even old women taking care of older people, especially as women live longer," she says.

For many, that means a tremendous income loss as women caregivers give up careers or delay professional moves to do something society tells them they have to do.

"I'm also really miffed at the over-drugging of women," she comments. "It's amazing. They've become a target audience for social control."

So, is "successful aging" our responsibility? And what will happen if we fail to grow old gracefully? Cruikshank tackles these questions.

"First, we have to reconstruct aging that defies the 'isms'--which means we have to dump the medical model and see aging as something other than a disease. Instead, we have to see it as part of the life force."

She suggests that old people could vote as a bloc. "Like working class or blacks or queers do," she offers. "But the hitch is that many people don't feel they're old, so they wouldn't be drawn into that political bloc.

"Taking it on as an identity is useful as an organizing strategy, though. It's been important, for example, for women's studies departments to have their Elder Caucus or old lesbians to form affinity groups."

So how do you take on being old as part of your central identity? Cruikshank suggests generating the notion of crone-hood.

"Being a cool old lady is a highly individualized thing," she says.

For some, that means taking full permission to go out and do the things that aren't expected of someone of advanced years.

"Be flamboyant, get involved in the arts, in the humanities, in environmental politics," Cruikshank suggests. She adds that staying connected to the lives of young people is crucial.

"Don't just fossilize yourself, but also don't make assumptions about yourself because you're old."

Cruikshank talks about the interplay of both the personal and the larger political and social forces upon us as we age. Her reading takes place on Tuesday, March 18, at 7 p.m., at Antigone Books, 411 N. Fourth Ave., and is free. Ask her how you can be a cool old lady or offer your suggestions from your own Big Crone on Campus status.

For details, call 792-3715.